For William Hazlitt paintings become politically charged when their self-contained worlds make us aware of our creative potential for renewing our own. This essay examines the contradictions between Hazlitt’s radical politics and his opposition to the mass appreciation of art, compares his writings on aesthetic experience to those of his contemporary Karl Marx, and unpacks the critic’s enigmatic thoughts on J.M.W. Turner and the possibilities of painting.

I deny in toto and at once the exclusive right and power of painters to judge of pictures. What is a picture meant for? To convey certain ideas to the mind of painters? That is, of one man in ten thousand? – No, but to make them apparent to the eye and mind of all. If a picture be admired by none but painters, I think it is strong presumption that the picture is bad.1

This quotation, from Hazlitt’s essay ‘On Judging of Pictures’ published in the Literary Examiner in 1823, suggests unequivocally that he is full of democratic animus where the professional technique of painters – which he acknowledges as of course necessary to the production of art – presumes to an élitist authority of critical judgement or appreciation. Egoism, he tells us, is usually what makes painters judgemental or presumptive. Equally, though, painters are not to be aggregated; their expertise cannot be added up or multiplied so as to produce a kind of arithmetic excellence. This makes for another kind of democracy, the democracy of painters. In this democracy, their claims to be better than each other are collapsed into critical discriminations of their differences: ‘Haydon and Wilkie can travel to fame together without ever jostling each other by the way. Surely there are parallel roads which may be followed, each leading to the same point – but neither crossing or trenching upon one another’.2 ‘Trenching’ is an interesting word, which (like ‘cleave’) can mean to divide or sever by cutting, and also to encroach upon. Hazlitt’s point was that painters are not entitled to be considered authorities on aesthetic judgement, and so set a pattern that the rest of us must follow, for the same reason that they are entitled to be appreciated on their own terms. His exposition of ‘gusto’ in aesthetics, and his consistent opposition to ‘abstraction’ as the paradigm of knowledge, support him here. Gusto, according to Hazlitt, is the intensity with which painters can be conscious of the individuality of their claim to make us think. But that same personal inflection typifying excellence in painting ceases to show the defining difference of a painter’s achievement at the moment when it begins to encroach critically on others. Painters, in Hazlitt’s argument, clearly damage their own claims to success when they trench on the differences that ensure their distinctiveness by criticising the characteristic differences of others in comparison with their own standards. Hazlitt suggests that in claiming to be a better judge than others through deprecating the defining differences of others is self-defeating. Such painter-critics undermine a common sense of the intensity which Hazlitt, like Keats, believed makes for the excellence of any art, and can appear in as many forms as there are personalities.

Hazlitt’s advocacy of an aesthetic of individual expression is dependent upon his conviction that the arts are not progressive, a subject upon which he wrote several times. That argument is usually presented as relying on a contrast between the arts and the sciences. The arts do not get better, in the sense that Shakespeare can be said to write greater plays than Sophocles. Nor do they grow obsolete, in the sense that Ptolemaic science has been superseded by Newtonian physics. But Hazlitt also thinks that a reason for the arts not being progressive is that artistic achievements cannot be added to or accumulate virtue one from another. A science can become further reaching and still retain its identity. It is known now, more than Hazlitt did, that sciences can change their paradigms. But paradigm change still assumes at some level a kind of convergence of knowledge, which makes Newton an advance on Ptolemy, Einstein an advance on Newton, and string theory or alternatives the next stage in the advancement of learning.

This incremental sequence just does not work with painters and sculptors. Tintoretto may have appeared to hope so when he asked for ‘il disegno di Michelangelo e il colorito di Titiano’ (the drawing of Michelangelo and the colourfuness of Titian), but it was in fact nonsense to think of such combinations arithmetically, as if one talent plus another would make two.3 It would be like trying to be two different people at the same time. To be both would be a psychological disorder, not a progression. You cannot add one to the other, you have to be one or the other: ‘no one can voluntarily add the colouring of Rubens to the expression of Raphael, till he has the same eye for colour as Rubens, and for expression as Raphael’.4 It would be like trying to be autonomous twice, simultaneously, or to be two independent sources of power rather than, unproblematically, to know two pieces of knowledge. Artistic achievement can be hybrid but not cumulative. To a mathematical, rule-governed model, Hazlitt opposed a kind of ‘participation with nature’, a common life or world with which it is then up to the critic to get on terms.5

To realise and demonstrate this truth constitutes ‘true’ progress in the arts, as distinct from the false progress analogous to science. This distinction underwrites Hazlitt’s suspicion of any institutionalisation of the arts. He worried that academies foster an education by learning rules, a general skill supposed to ensure the successful delivery of estimable paintings.

Correggio … saw and felt for himself; he was of no school, but had his own world of art to create. That image of truth and beauty, which existed in his mind, he was forced to construct for himself, without rules or model. As it has arisen in his mind from the contemplation of nature, so he could only hope to embody it to others, by the imitation of nature … – Such is always the true progress of art.6

Artistic achievement remains irreducibly singular. So despite the refusal to grant painters an unchallengeable authority, Hazlitt remained distrustful of any general rules of appreciation external to those immanent in individual examples. Prescriptive rules of representation are overridden by the power to embody one’s own world in paint. Then another world is produced, not a copy of this world; but it is from the painter’s world that we learn the coherence or keeping with which we can recognise images of worldliness, the kind of environment in which we belong. When they form part of his approval of a painting, Hazlitt’s ekphrases, or critical accounts of painting, are more concerned with evoking the painting’s ‘own world’, rather than its form or content. The fine arts are not promoted by academies that teach how to copy the world. What is needed is education in the artist’s power to create his or her own world. The idea of art as representation is replaced by the idea of art as exemplary. We can all represent and be represented. But aesthetic politics works differently from the politics of government. The former looks after our best interests, but not through letting us participate. Or, better, the most effective way to describe the right to be taken seriously in aesthetic matters is to distinguish it from democratic politics: to separate art’s exemplary production of a world from representation of the existing world. The two were connected in Hazlitt’s mind, for the exemplary world in which we recognise our place sets new standards of human accommodation for the existing world. In ‘Whether the Fine Arts are Promoted by Academies’ (1814) Hazlitt wrote:

The principal of universal suffrage, however applicable to matters of government, which concerns the common feelings and common interests of society, is by no means applicable to matters of taste, which can only be decided on by the most refined understandings … The public taste is, therefore, vitiated, in proportion as it is public: it is lowered by every infusion it receives of common opinion … and thus the decay of art may be said to be the necessary consequence of its progress.7

Faced with this impasse, is there a way of recuperating Hazlitt’s political radicalism in the context of the arts? Or is he just democratic in politics and very much not so in aesthetic matters? The latter, it has to be said, is the way things look at a first reading. A distrust of academies or artistic institutions cannot fully account for the fervour of Hazlitt’s anti-democratic aesthetics. The only way to resolve the contradiction is to see his writing on aesthetics as sharing in a general effort to re-think political radicalism in the wake of the French Revolution. To maintain sympathy with its aims, after the Terror, required one to refigure the Revolution, escaping its own longue durée in ways which did not lead to a blood-bath. Of course the actual historical outcomes of the French Revolution could be defended more literally as Hazlitt sometimes did, by seeing the Revolutionary Wars as provoked by William Pitt’s mechanical counter-revolution, and regarding Napoleon’s imperium as establishing a new kind of monarchy, a meritocratic rather than an hereditary one.8 More fruitful, though, was to regard that ‘most astonishing’ of all revolutions hitherto – as its greatest British critic Edmund Burke called it – as moving on a much broader cultural front, as an invitation to imagine modernity.9 For Friedrich Schlegel, the most influential theorist of early German Romanticism, it was one of the main ‘tendencies’ (Tendenzen) of the age.10 Thus historicised, the particular event was of a significance that could be refigured to keep pace with history. And Hazlitt’s reconceiving of revolution in this spirit is what explains the otherwise puzzlingly anomalous politics of his aesthetics. We are more used to looking for this kind of revisionism elsewhere: in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) by the first great feminist theorist, Mary Wollstonecraft, for whom patriarchy in general was as much in need of revolution as the ancien régime, say; or in the sensuousness, scandalous at the time, of the poet John Keats; or in the globalist rather than nationalist or imperialist view of the progress of civilisation in the Dissenting poet Anna Barbauld’s poem, ‘Eighteen Hundred and Eleven’, which provoked the fury of the right-wing reviews; or in the European rather than exclusively British political focus of second generation Romantic poets, such as Lord Byron, champion of the Greek rebellion against the Ottoman Empire, and Percy Shelley, champion of just about every rebellion. But, the claim that Hazlitt also keeps faith with the original inspiration of the Revolution and its ‘tendency’, allowing its impulse to mutate as necessary throughout his writings, would begin to explain the apparent political inconsistency of his aesthetics.

Hazlitt, after all, linked the French Revolution to printing, to a new form of communicative action, when describing its epochal character. He had ‘set out in life with the French Revolution’, he writes in his 1827 essay ‘On the Feeling of Immortality in Youth’, which meant that he came to consciousness at a time when ‘a new impulse had been given to men’s minds’.11 Hazlitt also thought that religious and poetical enthusiasm had received ‘a sensible shock’ from the progress of ‘experimental philosophy’.12 The great political experiment of the age was, of course, the French Revolution, and those same sensible shock waves or impulses travelled further into the contemporary sensibility analysed by Hazlitt. When he also declared the French Revolution to be ‘the remote but inevitable result of the art of printing’, the two aperçus challenged his reader to connect them.13 The democratising movement of the French Revolution deployed the democratising potential within print technology, which finally produced ‘print culture’, a potentially universal franchise of reading. Hazlitt’s disdain for the ‘twopenny trash’ made possible by popular print culture then sits awkwardly with his sympathy for the revolution against hierarchy, which started in 1789.14 There is a need to re-imagine the connection he must have wanted to obtain between democracy and the imagination. For it appeared to Hazlitt that the power-hungry imagination had been detached from rational justice, but only for both to converge on another plane.

That is to say, both the universalising Jacobin and the egoistic poet produced comparable tyrannies. Burke had attacked Jacobin rationalism for lacking ‘the wardrobe of a moral imagination’, but he had not seen that imagination also ought to be accused of injustice.15 The ‘shock’ to the imagination was the realisation that it had to become self-critical, and so itself re-imagine what its political role would look like if it were to recover that Shakespearean hope Hazlitt extolled in his 1817 book Characters of Shakespear’s Plays: ‘its root is in the heart of man, it rears its head above the stars’.16 As in the case of the invention of print culture, human commonality had to be understood anew in light of the new imaginary communities made possible by revolution. Otherwise poetry would have been transformed ‘by means of the French Revolution into the poetry of paradox’.17 That is, in order to represent us justly (the general egalitarian character in which we are to be treated fairly under the law) it would have to abandon its art, which was exclusive, individually exemplary, and deregulated. The painter’s use of his exclusive power, like Correggio’s, to create a world, a new version of what we could recognise we had in common, should be understood as resolving this crisis. Success in painting only comes when the individual ‘gusto’ of the painter gains our sympathy, and so makes his or her vision habitable by us, ours to extend in ekphrasis, as we welcome the painter’s visual achievement to our real world of the five senses. Success here, though, was something in which the critic would have to become the painter’s advocate.

As Hazlitt kept telling his readers, his intellectual career was founded on the discovery detailed in his ‘Essay on the Principles of Human Action’ (1805), which considered the natural disinterestedness of the human mind.18 In this work we are presented with the credentials of a new philosophy of sympathy, one based on but re-deploying the ideas of empiricist philosophers in which Hazlitt’s Dissenting education had primed him.19 He began his intellectual life with his own philosophical counter to their ‘experimental philosophy’, arguing that the means by which one has an interest in the future – and so have self-defining motives, reasons for action and so on – is the same as the means by which one sympathises with other people. But both the future and the experiences of others are elusive to the sensations or empirical data grounding experiment. Furthermore, the ‘Essay on the Principles of Human Action’ suggests, unless one’s self-understanding diversifies in consequence of this symmetry with one’s understanding of others, it will dwindle. ‘I could not love myself’, he states at the start, ‘if I were not capable of loving others’.20 Self-interest could only become enlightened by not being self-interest. An openness to the redefinition of one’s own interest by the interests of others breaks with the selfish economy of the utilitarian ethics Hazlitt had inherited. So, to rehearse Hazlitt’s language on Correggio, it must be the case, then, that the intensity with which a great painter expresses his or her own world will be a function of their apprehension of what a world might be for other people. And vice versa. The political charge of this is certainly not shared by party politics, and so would just not qualify as politics according to Edmund Burke’s definition.21 Politics does to some extent have to be re-conceived in order for the political implications to be seen here. Sympathy is not just about feeling others’ pain; it is also about understanding the differences in individuality which make it natural for a society to be a product of sympathy rather than reason: a defining interaction of which the realised world of the artist makes its respondents especially aware. The painter’s talent is to show the creative range we potentially possess for putting together and renewing a common world, something not concluded by the revolutionary effort of 1789. Hazlitt’s idea of natural disinterestedness reaches back to the Enlightenment philosophies of mainline thinkers such as the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, Joseph Butler and Francis Hutcheson, but in its embedding of social or political universals in individual aesthetic satisfaction it also looks forward, as shall be shown.

Hazlitt’s personification of painting looks less impressionistic when, in a typical expansion, he turns what looks like a sentimental subjectivism – paintings are like people – into a kind of aesthetic dialogism: painters foreground people’s typically world-making creativity, a correspondence which, reciprocally, allows them to understand the point of painting. In his 1816 essay ‘On Gusto’ he makes this the central quality of aesthetic excellence: ‘gusto in painting is where the impression made on one sense excites by affinity those of another’.22 Synaesthesia, the mixed metaphors for which Romanticism was castigated by early modernists like T.E. Hulme and Irving Babbitt, seeking a decisive break with Romanticism, here becomes a model for articulacy. The paintings Hazlitt champions are those which, like Titian’s, evince this ‘gusto’; Claude’s on the other hand ‘do not interpret one sense by another’.23 For Hazlitt, great paintings have an internal conversation with themselves. That’s how they can have ‘meaning’ within a ‘language’ of painting. The cliché that paintings speak a language has more to it when this ability to make a visual palette become discursive or audible, as it were, is pushed to the fore in Hazlitt’s criticism of paintings. In his ‘Notes on a Journey through France and Italy’ (1826) he claims that Titian ‘has more subtlety and meaning’ than Giorgione.24 This strange verdict – one surely would have expected Giorgione’s allegories to match if not trump Titian for ‘subtle meanings’ – arises because Hazlitt is not considering the narratives the paintings might tell. That is not how he thinks they attain a linguistic character. It is rather through their signifying form, paint, that they stimulate us to throw off the ‘despotism of the eye’, as Coleridge deplored it, and to enjoy visual reception through the five senses. He can praise narrative painting: ‘Other pictures we see, Hogarth’s we read’.25 But here his emphasis is different. The fact that touch, for example, is presented visually lets a great painter interpret touch in a way that enlivens our sense of what touch is, and with it the general sensibility, the overall economy to which it contributes. Again it is worth stressing how different this is from the loose synaesthesia modernists criticised and more like the unified sensibility whose gradual disintegration after the Renaissance and contemporary dissociation was famously lamented by another modernist, T.S. Eliot.26 Also in ‘Notes on a Journey through France and Italy’ Hazlitt wrote that:

Imagination is entirely a thing imaginary, and has nothing to do with matter of fact, history, or the senses. To see an object of thought or fancy is just as impossible as to feel a sound or hear a smell.27

When the senses stimulate each other and so redeem our sensibility from dissociation, then what Hazlitt has in mind is not this kind of sensual confusion, any more than a confusion of fact and fiction. He was fond of quoting Macbeth in the grips of such a malfunction when ‘Mine eyes are made the fools o’ th’ other senses’.28 Later in ‘Notes on a Journey through France and Italy’ he laments that however well we learn a foreign language we can never attach meaning to its words as comprehensively as we can in our native language. What the language speaks about is not humanised in the way that signification in our mother-tongue is imbued for us with a history of the formation of our understanding of it: ‘We may learn the words; but they do not convey the same feelings, nor is it possible that they should do so, unless we would begin our lives over again’.29

The humanising of objects, through myriad associations gained from the sensuously varied process of learning about them, is sedimented in the language we use to speak about them. Great painting makes us aware of this concerted response by showing that one sense can so revive the other senses that what is depicted takes on the aspect of belonging to an entire life and so reflects back to us the unity of our personality. A nature so animated by a painter can tell us our own story. It tells it back to us, because we have lived it, but its telling is unusually eloquent. Painting is like a recitation that overcomes the usual pattern of perception in which the concerns of one sense are abstracted from that of the others. Painting is the alternative to our everyday, abstract way of noticing, which has no ambition of integrating our experience in a way which returns to us a sense of our total, personal engagement with an entire world. Writing only eighteen years later, Karl Marx famously argued that ‘The cultivation of the five senses is the work of all previous history’.30 And, to our point here, he argues that it is through aesthetic appreciation that the otherwise singular despotism of a sense is overcome and the humanity of objects that belong to a life is reflected back to us. Crucially for the young Marx, such aesthetic appreciation needs a quality of life unrestricted by economic oppression or the division of labour. This is not aestheticism, far from it, but the claim that unless aesthetic appreciation is possible the meaning of certain categories central to human beings’ understanding of themselves just vanishes:

Sense which is a prisoner of crude practical need has only a restricted sense. For a man who is starving the human form of food does not exist, only its abstract form exists; it could just as well be present in its crudest form, and it would be hard to say how this way of eating differs from that of animals. The man who is burdened with worries and needs has no sense for the finest of plays; the dealer in minerals sees only the commercial value, and not the beauty and peculiar nature of the minerals; he lacks a mineralogical sense; thus the objectification of the human essence, in a theoretical as well as a practical respect, is necessary both in order to make a man’s senses human and to create an appropriate human sense for the whole of the wealth of humanity and of nature.31

Marx, one might say, concentrated on the humanising of the world required to make an aesthetic appreciation of it possible. Hazlitt concentrated on the appreciation which can reveal an otherwise unthought-of or forgotten human meaning in objects. And he was always fascinated, rather in the fashion of characters in Laurence Sterne’s sentimental novel Tristram Shandy (1759–67), by the use of objects to convey deeply felt meanings – like one of his heroes, Rousseau’s, use of the pervenche or periwinkle flower in his Confessions (1782–9) as shorthand for the profundity of his happiness with his lover Mme de Warens; or the little statue of Napoleon used in Hazlitt’s own erotic confession, Liber Amoris (1823), to symbolise the love he so wanted to imagine was shared by the young woman with whom he was then infatuated, Sarah Walker. In the early ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts’ Marx already advocated a materialism in strong contrast to Hazlitt’s idealism. But the two thinkers are dialectically connected to each other, and they share a radicalism as discontented with any of the usual trademark sympathies.

It is instructive to return to ‘On Judging of Pictures’ in light of this mutual illumination of Hazlitt and Marx. Hazlitt wrote that ‘to go into the higher branches of the art – the poetry of painting – I deny still more peremptorily the exclusiveness of the initiated’.32 The poetry of painting is present for Hazlitt when the kind of articulacy just sketched is activated by a picture. To Hazlitt, the deficiencies of Sir Joshua Reynolds as a painter are those which prohibited him from being ‘a poet in his art’; and Reynolds is presented as aware of his own failings as failings to be articulate. Unlike his friends the critic Joseph Warton, the political thinker and parliamentarian Edmund Burke and the writer Oliver Goldsmith, Reynolds was dissatisfied with his Count Ugolino and his Children in the Dungeon 1773 (National Trust, Knole) because he was ‘bound to understand the language which he used, as well as that which was given him to translate’.33 When, in his review of Wordsworth’s The Excursion (1814), Hazlitt compares the poet and Rembrandt, we again encounter the phenomenon of something singular activating a larger context in defiance of the limitations of the original medium in which it is expressed and out of which it translates in Hazlitt’s sense.

[Wordsworth’s] mind magnifies the littleness of his subject, and raises its meanness; lends it strength, and clothes it with borrowed grandeur … His poems bear a direct resemblance to some of Rembrandt’s landscapes, who, more than any other painter, created the medium through which he saw nature, and out of the stump of an old tree, a break in the sky, and a bit of water, could produce an effect almost miraculous.34

One has to add that Hazlitt was more often waspish about this Wordsworthian profundity, as when he wrote that Wordsworth ‘took a personal interest in the universe’; or where he contrasts him with Rousseau, who, ‘in a word, interests you in certain objects by interesting you in himself [while] Mr Wordsworth would persuade you that the most insignificant objects are interesting in themselves because he is interested in them’.35But the flip side of these barbs is just that the poetry of something puts the components of perception in dialogue with each other in such a way as to make us aware of the historical character of apparently objective representations of nature. Thus humanised, nature reflects back to us the kind of people we are at a particular time. Hazlitt’s ekphrases work for him, because they expand on the content of paintings and so are part of the same communicative activity. ‘Painting gives the object itself, poetry what it implies’, he wrote, so the ‘poetry of painting’ leads the viewer outwards, exploring the category of the human, because the other premise of this essay, ‘On Poetry in General’, is that ‘Man is a poetical animal’.36 Writing about King Lear, he had claimed that ‘Whoever has a contempt for poetry, has a contempt for himself and humanity’.37 And to elicit the poetry of the painting he is looking at, as has been shown, is the point of Hazlitt’s ekphrases when they are engaging with ‘the higher branches of the art’.

Benjamin West Christ Rejected 1814
Benjamin West
Christ Rejected 1814
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Hazlitt was highly suspicious of literary pictorialism, or the translation of one artistic language into another without remainder.38 For example, Benjamin West, the Anglo-American historical painter and President of the Royal Academy after Reynolds, lacks Raphael’s ‘gusto’, and this criticism leads to the conclusion that West’s paintings are ‘not poetry but prose’.39 To be prose already, clearly does not allow any room for the critical dilation which identifies the world-making quality that great painting should possess. Hazlitt then creates a critical pincer movement on West, when he also claims that the artist’s own paintings do not elaborate their original: that is why they leave us nothing to say about what they have done. His painting of Christ Rejected 1814 (fig.1) puts a ‘version of the sacred text into the language of the pencil, but we cannot say that we find any of the spirit of the original in the translation’.40 Rembrandt’s greatness, on the other hand, was to compose ‘the finest poetry’ in his paintings.41 But in a ‘Table Talk’ essay of 1821 we find that Nicolas Poussin, who was for Hazlitt the ‘most poetical’ of all painters, is the artist who is most able to give the objects he painted a language. The ‘significance’ and ‘consciousness’ in what he does arises from his being able to let nature speak, at the risk of compromising the idiom of his art and making his figures ‘o’er informed’:

Even inanimate and dumb things speak a language of their own. His snakes, the messengers of fate, are inspired with human intellect. His trees grow and expand their leaves in the air, glad of the rain, proud of the sun, awake to the winds of heaven.42

Again, the strength of an articulate coherence, a ‘conscious keeping’, can sometimes foreclose or encroach (‘trench’ again) on the critical expansion which confirms the poetry of painting. Hazlitt again, significantly, adapts the hallucinating and paranoid Macbeth, a character who forever was trying to wrap up the future in the present: ‘Thy very stones prate of my whereabout’.43 Just as poetry itself has no exclusive prerogative except as it hands it over to a larger category of the human ‘animal’, so painting retains its integrity through the gifts its visual idiom characteristically makes to a wider human sphere. That this recipient is wider is part of what the generosity of great painting implies, for Hazlitt. In painting, words become things, but the visual character to which painting shows that things can lend themselves then inspires the critical translation of them into a broader significance. There has to be movement where Hazlitt’s poetic humanism is concerned. For, in any art, ‘wherever there is life and motion, life and motion become the principal things’, a remark inspired by looking at the paintings in Lucien Bonaparte’s collection.44

Hazlitt was somewhat enigmatic about J.M.W. Turner, accusing him in his ‘Round Table’ essay ‘On Imitation’ (1816), of ‘too much abstractions of aerial perspective’, although the pejorative implications of ‘abstraction’, ever-present in Hazlitt’s writings, are rather displaced by the density of critical compliment that follows in his packed footnote from where the remark comes. This afterthought takes over from the main text. There he commends ‘representations not so properly of the objects of nature as of the medium through which they are seen. They are the triumph of the knowledge of the artist, and of the power of the pencil over the barrenness of the subject’.45 This takes us back to the miraculous achievements of Wordsworth and Rembrandt, in transfiguring ‘littleness’ and ‘meanness’.46 The egotism of arbitrary artistic power threatens their virtuosity, but is displaced by the equation of the power of the pencil with a ‘medium’, a word with which Hazlitt resumes the artist’s production of his entire world. In the case of Turner, though, Hazlitt’s extraordinary footnote seems to suggest that this process is what the painting is about, because of its self-reflexive representation of the painter’s ‘medium’. Hence the propriety of Hazlitt’s transference of authority for his own ekphrasis to the beginning of Genesis, the ur-text of the creation of the world in Judaeo-Christian culture. Hazlitt interprets Turner’s art by putting it in dialogue with the scene of Creation: ‘They are pictures of the elements of air, earth and water. The artist delights to go back to the first chaos of the world … All is without form and void’.47

The painting empowers Hazlitt to quote Turner’s painting in another language. The essay ‘On Gusto’ follows soon after. The Biblical echo can sound, literally, inhuman, referring as it does to primeval, prehistoric speculation. But it is in many ways synonymous with Hazlitt’s claim in ‘On Poetry in General’ that poetry in general is ‘the stuff of which our lives are made’, which sounds warm and engaged.48 The poetry of this kind of painting lets its elements compose a sense of life and makes us able to perceive what is usually ambient and peripheral – a gesture whose recognition as a poetic one goes back to St Paul: ‘For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, for we are also his offspring’.49 Poetic painting of this kind makes of our world something we can see as well as we can the objects in it. Why? Because this seeing elaborates the context in which the objects make sense, and allows us to interpret them in terms of each other, paintings in which our sensations are allowed to function like words in a language. ‘Fancy’, wrote Hazlitt, ‘cannot be represented any more than a simile can be represented’.50 Yet the major aesthetic categories Hazlitt applies to painting, especially ‘gusto’, but also the ‘ideal’ and the ‘picturesque’, describe painting’s power to give us the standards of symmetry, ‘relation’ and the ‘entire’ we need in order for us to fancy likenesses of the world, life and so on, which cut through their own abstraction to the quick of our existence.

The gusto of Turner’s paintings allows us to tell the story of the collaboration of their various elements. Irresponsible critics are those who tell the wrong stories. Cultural historian John Barrell’s review in the London Review of Books of the Late Turner exhibition at Tate Britain deplored a persistent wrong story (initiated, he claimed, by the critic Lawrence Gowing) which turns Turner into the first ‘modern’ painter.51 Was Hazlitt’s story that Turner paints his medium also a wrong one? To claim Turner paints his medium suggests that it is an awareness of what paintings do which is his subject. Does it make any sense to say that he paints painting’s own facilitation of this interaction with its viewer? Or is this too postmodern a take on Hazlitt’s idea of gusto, a historical solecism comparable to the one to which Barrell objects? To answer this question, though, takes us to the heart of Hazlitt’s kind of criticism. First of all, Romantic theory is quite as interested in reflexivity as is any near-contemporary speculation. Secondly, Hazlitt has, embedded in his common-sense philosophical style, as much theoretical sophistication as his more explicitly philosophical contemporary, Coleridge. Hazlitt’s constant recall of the canon of English literature in his writing is visible in his incessant quotations. In reading him we read the canon informing his thought. The philosophical ideas behind his aesthetic appreciation are rarely signalled as explicitly. But the theories are there, and in his remarks on Turner they are for a moment quite visible. There, Hazlitt, like other Romantic philosophers of art after Kant, ponders the mix of access and lostness, freedom and epistemological incapacity, into which art’s exemption from the jurisdiction of concepts plunges us. Romantic art theory opens the door to an experience which we know belongs to us and yet refuses to belong to our systematic self-knowledge. What follows Romanticism in Britain, France and Germany are attempts to palliate this constitutional instability of the self, this abyssal self-experience, either by expanding science and inventing a new psychology up to conceptualising the new realm of freedom, or by consciously constructing a cultural field, a sentimental safe-house, where we can have an untaxing enjoyment of our scientific unmanageability. Both of these responses are recognisably Victorian. The scientific encroachment or trenching on aesthetics also accords with the ‘precision’ which, Barrell reminds us, characterises Turner’s own thinking about light, or the very condition of visibility upon which his art of course relies. Hence Turner’s parallel interests in sublimity and in technology; hence also, perhaps, why his verse accompaniments to his paintings wed the staples of Augustan personification to compositions which seem to be about escaping any such gloss.52 If this is right, then we can say that the articulacy which Hazlitt’s romantic reading of Turner uncovers in his paintings, is Hazlitt’s most challenging instance of the articulacy of paintings in general. But Hazlitt’s insistence on the articulacy also helps explain the Victorian that Turner was to become.


  • 1. William Hazlitt, ‘On Judging of Pictures’ (1823), in The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. by P.P. Howe, 21 vols, London 1930–4, vol.18, p.182.
  • 2. Ibid., p.184.
  • 3. Carlo Ridolfi, La Vita di Jacopo Robusti, Venice 1642, p.6.
  • 4. William Hazlitt, ‘Why the Arts are not Progressive’ (1808), in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.18, p.8.
  • 5. Ibid.
  • 6. William Hazlitt, ‘Whether the Fine Arts are Promoted by Academies’ (1814), in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.18, p.42.
  • 7. Ibid., p.46.
  • 8. For Hazlitt’s analysis of Pitt’s ‘miserable logic’ see ‘Free Thoughts on Public Affairs’ (1806), in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.7, pp.108–10. For his continuous polemic in support of Napoleon against the ‘mediocrity of royalty’ see his 1819 Political Essays, with Sketches of Public Characters, in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.7, passim.
  • 9. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790, ed. by J.G.A. Pocock, Indianapolis and Cambridge 1987, p.9.
  • 10. Friedrich Schlegel, Athenäums Fragmente: Studienausgabe, vol.2, ed. by Ernst Behler and Hans Eichner, Paderborn 1988, p.124.
  • 11. William Hazlitt, ‘On the Feeling of Immortality in Youth’ (1827), in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.17, pp.196–7.
  • 12. William Hazlitt, ‘On Poetry in General’ (1818), in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.5, pp.8–9.
  • 13. William Hazlitt, ‘The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte’, in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.13, p.38.
  • 14. William Hazlitt, ‘Conversations of James Northcote’ (1830), in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.11, p.279.
  • 15. Burke 1987, p.67.
  • 16. William Hazlitt, ‘Characters of Shakespear’s Plays’ (1817), in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.4, p.250.
  • 17. William Hazlitt, ‘Lectures on the English Poets’ (1818), in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.5, pp.82–3.
  • 18. William Hazlitt, ‘Essay on the Principles of Human Action, Being an Argument in Favour of the Natural Disinterestedness of the Human Mind’ (1805), in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.1. See also the volume of articles dedicated to this essay: Uttara Natarajan, Tom Paulin and Duncan Wu (eds.), Metaphysical Hazlitt: Bicentenary Essays, London and New York 2005.
  • 19. On the varieties of opinion on justice and sympathy in this tradition see Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, London 1988, chapters 13–16. For a much needed updating of Hazlitt’s Dissenting education, by father and academy, see Stephen Burley, Hazlitt the Dissenter: Religion, Philosophy and Politics, 1766–1816, Basingstoke 2014, chapters 1 and 2.
  • 20. William Hazlitt, ‘Essay on the Principles of Human Action’, in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.1, pp.1–2.
  • 21. For a discussion of the role of party in Romantic conservatism see Paul Hamilton, Metaromanticism: Aesthetics, Literature, Theory, Chicago 2003, pp.156–75.
  • 22. William Hazlitt, ‘On Gusto’ (1816), in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.4, p.78.
  • 23. Ibid., p.79.
  • 24. William Hazlitt, ‘Notes on a Journey through France and Italy’ (1826), in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.10, p.271.
  • 25. William Hazlitt, ‘Hogarth and Fielding – Mr Northcote’s Opinion’ (1829), in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.20, p.270.
  • 26. T.S. Eliot, ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ (1921), in Selected Essays, London 1951, pp.281–91.
  • 27. Hazlitt, ‘Notes on a Journey through France and Italy’, in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.10, p.232.
  • 28. William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Macbeth, ed. by Nicholas Brooke, Oxford 1998, p.124.
  • 29. Hazlitt, ‘Notes on a Journey through France and Italy’, in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.10, p.302.
  • 30. Karl Marx, ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts’, Early Writings, trans. by Rodney Livingstone and Gregory Benton, Harmondsworth 1975, p.353.
  • 31. Ibid., pp.353–4.
  • 32. Hazlitt, ‘On Judging of Pictures’, in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.18, p.182.
  • 33. William Hazlitt, ‘Character of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ (1814), in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.18, p.59.
  • 34. William Hazlitt, ‘Observations on Mr Wordsworth’s Poem The Excursion’ (1814), in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.4, p.121.
  • 35. William Hazlitt, ‘On the Character of Rousseau’ (1816), in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.4, p.92.
  • 36. Hazlitt, ‘On Poetry in General’, in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.5, pp.10, 2.
  • 37. Hazlitt, ‘Characters of Shakespear’s Plays’, in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.4, p.271.
  • 38. For a full analysis of Hazlitt’s objections to literary pictorialism see Roy Park, Hazlitt and the Spirit of the Age, Oxford 1971, chapter 4.
  • 39. William Hazlitt, ‘Mr West’s Picture of Christ Rejected’ (1814), in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.18, p.34.
  • 40. Ibid., p.31.
  • 41. William Hazlitt, ‘Lord Grosvenor’s Collection of Pictures’, (1824), in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.10, p.50.
  • 42. William Hazlitt, ‘Table-Talk: No.XI: On a Landscape of Nicolas Poussin’ (1821), in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.8, p.171.
  • 43. Shakespeare’s Macbeth quoted in ibid., p.171.
  • 44. William Hazlitt, ‘Lucien Bonaparte’s Collection’ (1815), in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.18, p.85.
  • 45. William Hazlitt, ‘On Imitation’ (1816), in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.4, p.76 note.
  • 46. Hazlitt, ‘Observations on Mr Wordsworth’s Poem The Excursion’, in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.4, p.121.
  • 47. Hazlitt, ‘On Imitation’, in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.4, p.76 note.
  • 48. Hazlitt, ‘On Poetry in General’, in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.5, p.2.
  • 49. Acts 17:28.
  • 50. William Hazlitt, ‘A View of the English Stage’ (1818), in Hazlitt 1930–4, vol.5, p.276.
  • 51. John Barrell, ‘At Tate Britain’, London Review of Books, vol.26, no.34, December 2014, pp.34–5.
  • 52. See Andrew Wilton, Painting and Poetry: Turner’s ‘Verse Book’ and his Work of 1804–1812, London 1990, pp.105–11.


An earlier version of this paper was presented at the conference William Hazlitt’s Art Criticism, organised by and held at Tate Britain and the National Gallery, London on Friday 28 November 2014. I am grateful to the organisers of the conference and the anonymous reader for suggesting constructive revisions of this paper.

Paul Hamilton is Professor of English, Queen Mary, University of London.

Tate Papers, Autumn 2015 © Paul Hamilton

Tate Papers (ISSN 1753-9854) is a peer-reviewed research journal that publishes articles on British and modern international art, and on museum practice today.

How to cite

Paul Hamilton, 'Critical Dilation: How William Hazlitt Judged Paintings', Tate Papers, no.24, Autumn 2015,, accessed 28 June 2017.

Tate Papers (ISSN 1753-9854) is a peer-reviewed research journal that publishes articles on British and modern international art, and on museum practice today.