A painter says come to the fair

THE English landscape painter John Constable greatly admired him. The French painters Gericault and Delacroix thought highly of his work. His fellow Royal Academician, J. M. W. Turner, now widely considered not merely the outstanding British painter of the l9th century but even, perhaps, the single most extraordinary genius of the brush to emerge in these islands, made works that appear to be in directly challenged competition with his. David Wilkie, son of a Scottish minister of the church, achieved considerable renown and popularity in his lifetime (the bicentenary of his birth is being celebrated this year). He was greatly admired by a number of prominent British painters in the succeeding generation. But his reputation virtually evaporated in the 20th century. In recent years, however, perhaps partly because of the revival of interest in Victorian art, various efforts have been made to restore to him the esteem in which he was hel d by his contemporaries. Three exhibitions in Britain have been staged in 1985 -- the latest, in Oxford and now in London, comprising the collection of his drawings from Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. This exhibition is at Morton Morris & Co., Bury Street, London, through December 6.

The reasons for Wilkie's lack of reputation in our century -- until now -- are in certain respects the same as the reasons for his popularity in his. He was a painter of narrative and anecdote, building his compositions out of a wealth of incident and a painstaking interest in detail. His work was more in tune with the genre paintings, the scenes of everyday life, of l7th century Holland, than with either the British tradition of portraiture or the developing interest in landscape painting in this coun try during the early part of the 19th century. An acquaintance even recorded an admission he made that he was awkward and slow at anything like landscape. Wilkie's extraordinary ability in the department of art he chose must therefore have struck contemporaries all the more forcibly.

His very early picture, ``Pitlessie Fair,'' painted on home ground in Fife before he moved to London, contains in embryo many of the traits of his subsequent work, at least in the first half of his career. It is a carefully composed record of local life, a contrived scene based on accurately observed detail of a place and its people. Such work earned him the label the Scottish Teniers. But he soon developed his fascination for group relationships into what Dr. Lindsay Errington calls magical powers .M DNM . . to conjure up live, thinking presences, with a past and future, affecting each other by their behavior.

Wilkie himself wrote of his conviction that ``art is only art when it adds mind to form.'' And one of his patrons believed that he would go beyond Teniers, Ostade, and all who had preceded him, as he exquisitely conveyed not only the ordinary expressions of the human countenance but also those of thought and expression.

In fact, he progressively developed, to a considerable state of finesse, a kind of silent visual dramatics, where facial expression -- the slightest glance, the meeting of eyes -- speaks volumes in terms of human motive, experience, and reaction. Compared with some of the later Victorian painters who were influenced by him, he seems genuinely concerned with feelings rather than sentimentality. He was also in love with art (a fact that might have been noticed by some of Wilkie's 20th-century detractors who dismissed him as merely a peddler of anecdotes), and he evidently believed art to be a chronological progression of skill and sophistication, part of the steady civilization of Western culture in its advance beyond primitivism.

His drawings indicate not only the thinking processes of his picturemaking -- and these tended to be extremely thorough and slow -- but also his respect for the Old Masters. Rembrandt and Rubens -- even their actual styles of drawing -- are evoked and recreated in his drawings. A finished drawing such as ``Woman Tiring Her Hair,'' with its sensitive use of the traditional three colors of chalk, red, black, and white, displays an admiration for Rubens that seems surprisingly sensuous for Wilkie's initia lly Northern sensibility. The sheet of studies for one of the interrelating groups of people in his popular painting of a Scottish subject, ``The Penny Wedding,'' is Rembrandtesque in its enjoyment of inky shadows out of which, by an exploratory series of tryouts, a cogent and expressive composition for this part of the painting emerges. It is particularly intriguing to see how, at this stage in the production of a picture, Wilkie allowed a free suggestiveness to come into play. His biographer, Cunningham, describes it as brooding over the scene. The smudgy investigations of the drawing ``Unwinding the Skein'' similarly consider the possibilities of figures in a telling relationship to each other, here actually linked by the business of one helping the other to make a ball of wool. Although no picture resulting from this sketch is known, one can imagine the already evident character of the two women of contrasting age developing into a picture to illustrate some moment from a Jane Austen novel. But almost alw ays Wilkie illustrates his own chosen or invented narratives.

Today, with storytelling once again considered a possible role for the serious painter, it is perhaps natural that Wilkie's sensitivity and originality are once more being admired.

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