We know from his writings that the history painter Benjamin Robert Haydon held a lifelong desire that his art would strongly affect the viewer; there is no better example of this aspiration than his immense canvas The Raising of Lazarus 1821–3 (Tate N00786, fig.1).1 This painting demonstrates Haydon’s attempts to emulate the ‘grand manner’ of history paintings which, as Haydon had learned from Jacques-Louis David and Sir Joshua Reynolds among others, were the most sublime and ‘those most likely to excite the loftiest emotions in the beholder’.2
Haydon’s dramatic personal life was dominated by his constant striving to achieve genius. The son of a Plymouth book-dealer, he was well placed to satisfy his voracious appetite for book-collecting and to fuel his obsession for classical literature and biblical texts, as well as his hero-worship of historical characters.3 His autobiography reveals his longing that even his newborn son would attain genius. These musings coincidentally are woven into the story of the making of The Raising of Lazarus, completed around the time of the artist’s marriage and the birth of his first child in 1822. His life dominated by the desire to be taken seriously as a history painter, Haydon eventually believed that his art had failed to convince; this was no doubt one of the reasons for his eventual suicide in 1846.4
Haydon carefully wove the creation of The Raising of Lazarus into his autobiography, the length of time and importance devoted to it imbuing it with an epic quality.5 He sets the scene for the painting’s inspiration as early as June 1810, when he transcribes a journal entry of his thoughts on seeing another painting entitled The Raising of Lazarus c.1517–19 by Sebastiano del Piombo (c.1485–1547), then in the London collection of the patron John Julius Angerstein and later sold to the National Gallery in 1824.6 Despite criticism of many aspects of Sebastiano’s composition, Haydon nonetheless saw it as a worthy rival and vowed then and there to produce a version of the subject to make Britain more proud, he ventured, than Rome would have been of Sebastiano’s efforts three centuries before.7 In case the reader should think that Haydon was wasting his competitive energies on anything less than a work of genius, he is careful to point out, as confirmed by his friend the painter Henry Fuseli, that Michelangelo had also had a hand in the painting’s authorship by providing Sebastiano with sketches for the figures.
In the next reference to Lazarus in his autobiography, Haydon describes how he happened upon a version of what he called the ‘resuscitation’ while sifting through prints at the British Museum around a decade later. The print he came across was so badly damaged that the head of Lazarus was invisible, immediately inspiring Haydon to imagine an ideal appearance of this figure that caused him to ‘tremble’ at the very thought. This episode provided the catalyst for the first sketches for The Raising of Lazarus in June 1820. Ordering a 426 x 632 cm landscape canvas that filled his entire studio, Haydon was determined that this would be his ‘grandest and largest work’ (in comparison, Sebastiano’s version measures a modest 381 x 290 cm).8
Haydon’s achievement in completing this enormous picture was recognised by his successors. In the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, three biblical scenes by Haydon – The Judgement of Solomon, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem and The Raising of Lazarus – are picked out as great works, with the second said to show Haydon at his most powerful. The head of Lazarus was also singled out for praise as being ‘so majestic and impressive that, if its author had done nothing else, we must still pronounce him a potent pictorial genius’.9 There is a startling power in this pictorial detail, but if we are to consider Haydon’s success in creating a sublime effect in The Raising of Lazarus we should look at the entire composition, as Haydon had the specific aim of representing visually the sublimity of the biblical text. His painting of Lazarus represents a return to the notion of a biblical sublime that was most prevalent before the second half of the eighteenth century. With his avid interest in literature, and especially of classical and biblical texts, he would have undoubtedly been aware of William Smith’s 1739 translation of the classical treatise Peri Hypsous (‘On Height’ or ‘On the Sublime’) by Longinus, which had been published several times in London even as recently as 1819. In the notes, Smith refers specifically to the story of Lazarus as an example of the rhetorical sublime:
Simplicity of Expression is so far from being opposed to Sublimity, that it is frequently the Cause and Foundation of it ... God said – What? – Let there be Light, &c. That interrogation between the narrative Part and the Words of the Almighty himself, carries with it an Air of Reverence and Veneration. It seems designed to awaken the Reader, and raise his awful Attention to the Voice of the great Creator. Instances of this majestic Simplicity and unaffected Grandeur are to be met with in great Plenty through the sacred Writings. Such as St. John xi.43. Lazarus, come forth.10
That Haydon may have consciously referred to the sublimity of this text in his painting is suggested by the importance he places on the figure of Christ, explored both in his writings and in the composition of The Raising of Lazarus itself. In his diaries, Haydon remarked upon what he considered Sebastiano’s somewhat unsatisfactory rendition:
there is great want of effect and our Saviour is a mean figure. He seems too indifferent. He has no appearance of inspiration, and I have heard this defended on the ground that the painter wished to make it appear an easy matter to him to raise the dead. This may be very true. It might require no other effort than stretching forth his hand; but, as the painter’s object is to excite the greatest possible interest, everything that will contribute to this he should avail himself of. If you make the principal figure in your picture uninterested, the spectator will be equally uninterested while looking at it.11
Indeed, while Christ is a part of the crowd in Sebastiano’s version – the virtuoso modelling of Lazarus in the right-hand corner is in fact the element that was intended to impress – he is central to Haydon’s composition. Standing upright in rich red garments, Haydon’s Christ presents an impressive figure who is at least two feet taller than life-size. Having quoted the words from John XI, ‘Lazarus, come forth’, in the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition of the painting, as well as including an extensive footnote on the translation of these words, Haydon describes his own portrayal of Christ thus:
Such is the simple narration of this great miracle!
In the centre stands Christ, resting firmly ... his right arm is lifted up, the hand bent and beckoning, as suiting the words, ‘come hither’ – his left arm hangs easily – tranquil power and tender affection are what I have wished to convey by the action and expression, as if in the turbulence of the scene he only was not alarmed or doubtful.12
This text is reminiscent of Smith’s discussion of the ‘majestic Simplicity’ of the same episode, and was perhaps informed by it. The raised right arm is placed precisely in the centre of the painting and, indeed, it is the vanishing point of the whole composition.
Haydon’s art was self-consciously sublime, in that he made blatant attempts overwhelmingly to affect his viewer. This is clear not only from his description of his compositions but also from his account of the first exhibition of The Raising of Lazarus. For the occasion he chose the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, as he had done three years previously to display Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem.13 In the account Haydon uses human anecdote to describe the importance of location on the effect of a painting and of showing the dramatic impact of colour to its full advantage, both physically and psychologically. He tells how his servant was ‘frightened’ by the darkness of the painting when it was hung in the western corner, and that when a technician saw it repositioned with its true colours revealed by light coming from the south he exclaimed, ‘Lazarus made me tremble’. His evident delight at the latter comment, shown by the fact that this remained the painting’s final location, betrays much about the importance of affect upon the viewer. Moreover, it is a universal, emotional response that Haydon sought above all to provoke, as confirmed by his proud summary of the exhibition private view: ‘No picture I have ever painted has been so applauded. The approbation was universal, and Lazarus affected everybody; high, low, ignorant and learned.’14 That the painting subsequently failed to find a buyer suggests that the public did not necessarily share this view, and Haydon was sent further into a spiral of self-delusion and debt, contributing ultimately to his untimely death.
Lydia Hamlett was Research Assistant (The Sublime Object: Nature, Art and Language), Tate.
On Haydon’s character, art and influences, see David Blayney Brown, Robert Woof and Stephen Hebron, Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1786–1846: Painter and Writer, Friend of Wordsworth and Keats, exhibition catalogue, Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere 1996, especially p.14, and Paul O’Keeffe, A Genius for Failure: The Life of Benjamin Robert Haydon, London 2009.
An edition of Haydon’s autobiography, based on entries from his diaries, was edited by Tom Taylor and published in three volumes in London in 1853 and it is this edition that it used here. The first volume of the second edition, also published in 1853, is available at http://www.archive.org/stream/lifebenjaminrob04haydgoog#page/n6/mode/2up, accessed 17 June 2011.
Lydia Hamlett, ‘Sublime Religion: Benjamin Robert Haydon’s The Raising of Lazarus ’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, Tate Research Publication, January 2013, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime/lydia-hamlett-sublime-religion-benjamin-robert-haydons-the-raising-of-lazarus-r1129549, accessed 25 January 2022.