Artist biography

English painter, teacher and writer. After an unhappy apprenticeship to his father, he entered the Royal Academy, London, in 1805. He was an enthusiastic student who became interested in anatomy.

Haydon was greatly impressed by the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon frieze, of which he made drawings in 1808. He championed them vociferously. Unfortunately the marbles encouraged Haydon's injudicious preference for working on a vast scale. Christ's Entry took six years, during which Haydon refused other work and was effectively without income. Their lack of compositional integration was exacerbated by the long time span and by an eye defect that enabled Haydon to see only one part of a canvas at a time. Nevertheless both pictures show him at his best as a history painter; they were much admired by contemporaries and possess undeniable grandeur.

Haydon's exclusive concentration on these paintings put him heavily into debt, and in 1823 he suffered the first of a series of bankruptcies and imprisonments. His disputes with the Academy had alienated him from his colleagues and his journalistic activities had made him many enemies.

His diary and autobiography are major documents in English Romanticism, indispensable for the study of the period. The last major English painter in the historical grand style of Reynolds, he was as much the victim of his overweening ambition and combative personality as of changing tastes, and his sense of his own genius – a Romantic concept wholly in keeping with the period – was regrettably greater than his genius itself.

C. Olney: Benjamin Robert Haydon: Historical Painter (Athens, GA, 1952)
F. Cummings: ‘Nature and the Antique in B. R. Haydon's Assassination of Dentatus', J. Warb. & Court. Inst., xxvi (1962), pp. 145–57
——: ‘B. R. Haydon and his School', J. Warb. & Court. Inst., xxvi (1963), pp. 370–80
——: ‘Phidias in Bloomsbury: B. R. Haydon's Drawings of the Elgin Marbles', Burl. Mag., cvi (1964), pp. 323–8
E. George: The Life and Death of Benjamin Robert Haydon (Oxford, 1967)
J. Barrell: The Political Theory of Painting from Reynolds to Hazlitt: The Body of the Public (New Haven, CT, 1986), pp. 308–14


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