Tate Papers ISSN 1753-9854

‘Truth of Character from Truth of Feeling’: William Hazlitt, ‘Gusto’ and the Linguistic History of Writing on Art

Adapting and applying speech act theories of language use, this paper offers a new understanding of the innovative import of William Hazlitt’s art criticism. Textual and rhetorical analysis of a sample of his critical writing – the 1821 essay ‘On a Landscape of Nicolas Poussin’ – illustrates Hazlitt’s development of ‘characterisation’, a mode of representation of the individual artwork focusing on its perceptual and affective appeal to a responsive viewer.

As a writer on art William Hazlitt has widely been recognised, for better and for worse, as a transitional, even pivotal figure. For example, in John Barrell’s estimation, Hazlitt aided the demise of the eighteenth-century ideal of ‘civic humanism’ by promoting a view of painting as privately and individually rather than publicly and collectively gratifying.1 Stephen Bann, on the other hand, has stressed Hazlitt’s ‘startlingly contemporary’ concern with the ‘involvement of the body with its motor capacities and its perceptual skills, in the acts of painting and responding to painting’, and views him as ‘foreshadowing the “aesthetic criticism” of Ruskin, Pater and Stokes, and thus as the first critic to pose the distinctive issues which these unique commentators on the arts successively tried to explore’.2 For Norman Bryson, again, ‘Hazlitt’s work on painting stands at [the] neglected watershed between Augustan and Romantic aesthetics’.3 If his theory of the visual arts addressed ‘some of the most fundamental problems in aesthetics’ in a way that now seems ‘prophetic’, it was also firmly grounded in that of his immediate forebears.4 ‘Hazlitt’s work,’ Bryson has argued, ‘is the essential bridge-passage where one can hear the themes of Enlightenment aesthetics suddenly transform into new configurations, to emerge finally as the new Romantic music. And without this bridge-passage the transformation will seem mysterious, a radical discontinuity or paradigmatic break, when it is really only a question of neglect and omission.’5 Just such a break was posited nearly fifty years ago by Robert Stange, for whom Hazlitt, with Charles Lamb, could ‘be said to have made later art criticism possible by challenging traditional ideas about the relations between painting and literature, and thereby extending the possibilities of prose expression’.6 By ‘art criticism’ Stange understood a ‘writer’s attempt to give a prose account of the aesthetic values and affective qualities of a work of visual art’.7 Art criticism in this precise sense was, he averred, ‘a new genre’, one inaugurated by Hazlitt and Lamb, though in a climate prepared by the aesthetic theories of Friedrich Schelling and Friedrich Schlegel. Stange presented its development as instantiating a more general and ‘radical change in the nature and function of … expository prose’, from ‘cognitive’ to ‘expressionist’.8 More recently, Richard Read has analysed the ‘sensuous particularity of Hazlitt’s ekphrases’ as ‘a gateway both to the massively enlarged domain of external appearances that Ruskin explored in his defence of Turner’s art from the 1840s onwards, and the equally enlarged subjective world that Pater opened for aesthetic reverie from the 1870s’.9 And lastly,  Tom Nichols has emphasised the decisive importance of Hazlitt’s contribution to the critical reception of Titian in Britain:

He pioneered a new historical phase in the understanding of colore, celebrating it as conjoined to the ongoing sensual life of the individual spectator. He was among the first to ‘privatise’ Titian’s colorito, to emphasise its communicative and personalising effects. His kind of intimate appreciation can be seen as a prototype for the aesthetic, avant-garde and modernist-inflected accounts of Titian’s painting that were to follow.10

The present paper aims to consolidate, supplement and even in part reconcile the foregoing observations by considering Hazlitt’s writing on art from a specifically linguistic and textual point of view and thereby assessing his role as innovator in a manner at once exact and comprehensive: the analytical method here outlined permits detailed comparison between writings on art of any genre and period, in so far as it focuses on those passages in which individual works of art or collections of works are verbally represented. Particular attention will be paid to the relation between Hazlitt’s critical and theoretical writings in this field, especially the essay in which he expounds his concept of ‘gusto’, a concept which Stanley Chase long ago recognised as representing for this writer ‘the crowning quality of great art’.11 That relation has been somewhat neglected. In her discussion of Hazlitt’s aesthetic, Elisabeth Schneider is concerned with ‘the philosophical basis of his criticism’ but not directly with the criticism itself.12 And looking ‘to find a historical context’ for his theoretical ‘pronouncements on art’, Bryson declared Hazlitt’s aesthetic ‘perhaps the most vivid illustration we have of Gusto’, himself, however, overlooking the more concrete exemplifications of the theory offered by the critical writings.13 In Bann’s essay too Hazlitt’s ‘practical criticism’ is not allowed to engage fully with his theory, and in particular with what Bann deemed the ‘unsatisfactory concept of “gusto”’.14 ‘Hazlitt’s great strength’, he insisted, lies less in any prescriptive ambition à la Reynolds than ‘in his capacity to mobilise the resources of a highly coloured, deceptively colloquial prose style in order to convey a vivid impression of the paintings which he values’.15

This paper aims to show not only what the precise resources are that Hazlitt mobilises, but how and why he does so, and in special reference to his theoretical pronouncements. Linguistically and textually motivated answers to these questions must, it is held, not only clarify Hazlitt’s individual aims and achievements as a writer but also enhance understanding of the broader cultural developments in which he has been seen to be so prominent an actor: the ‘radical change in the nature and function of … expository prose’ posited by Stange; the drift towards subjectivism regretted by Barrell; but also the deliberate ‘confusion of the arts’ and ensuing ‘suggestiveness’ of nineteenth-century literature, diagnosed at the beginning of the last century by Irving Babbitt;16 or, again, the novel strategies enumerated by Robert Schweik as deployed by nineteenth-century writers on art with the aim of ‘bringing images to life’: ‘situating the picture in the flow of time’; ‘conferring action and sound on pictures’ and ‘dramatising the viewer’s response’.17

A ‘descant upon’ Poussin’s Blind Orion

For reasons of space and in view of the variously emblematical significance accorded a portion of it by Stange, Bann and others – most conspicuously by Tom Paulin18 – this article will focus on the essay ‘On a Landscape of Nicolas Poussin’, first published (over the initial ‘T’) in the London Magazine of August 1821 as the eleventh in a series of essays bearing the general title ‘Table Talk’.19

Bann concludes his paper on Hazlitt’s art criticism by quoting and commenting on part of the initial passage devoted to Blind Orion in Search of the Rising Sun 1658 (fig.1), the ‘landscape’ of the essay’s title:

He is represented setting out on his journey, with men on his shoulders to guide him, a bow in his hand, and Diana in the clouds greeting him. He stalks along, a giant upon earth, and reels and falters in his gait, as if just awaked out of sleep, or uncertain of his way;––you see his blindness, though his back is turned. Mists rise around him, and veil the sides of the green forests; earth is dank and fresh with dews[.]20

Nicolas Poussin Blind Orion in Search of the Rising Sun 1658

Nicolas Poussin
Blind Orion in Search of the Rising Sun 1658
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Fletcher Fund 1924 

For Bann, Hazlitt’s text counts as his ‘most original, and yet in some ways most traditional essay on painting’: ‘traditional,’ he explains, ‘because in some ways it reads like an extended ekphrasis in the classical mode, and original because it associates the effect of the work with a primary fantasy, an anamnesis of original nature which seems to be suspended between Platonism and psychoanalysis’.21 Finding Hazlitt’s central critical concept of ‘gusto’ to adumbrate the ‘notion of synaesthesia’, Bann deems it ‘exactly appropriate, for his most lengthy essay on a single painting, Hazlitt should have chosen the subject of a blind man, since immediately he is able to deny the regime of visuality and associate the viewer’s pleasure with the bodily movements of Orion through the awakening landscape’.22

Stange fixes on substantially the same passage as an ‘excellent’ example of Hazlitt’s attempts to ‘render in words what he calls “the true and general impression” of a work of art’.23 He omits the first sentence in the extract given by Bann and he quoted Hazlitt’s text at slightly greater length, as follows:

earth is dank and fresh with dews, the ‘grey dawn and the Pleiades before him dance,’ and in the distance are seen the blue hills and sullen ocean. Nothing was ever more finely conceived or done. It breathes the spirit of the morning; its moisture, its repose, its obscurity, waiting the miracle of light to kindle it into smiles: the whole is, like the principal figure in it, ‘a forerunner of the dawn.’24

Stange then comments:

Much of the force of Hazlitt’s ‘impression’ depends on breaking through the widely accepted Lessing-ite views as to the limitations of the visual arts. He ascribes, for example, movement to the painted figure of Orion and to the landscape: mists rise, dawn and stars dance in the painting. And, even more significantly, the effects of one medium of sense impression are transposed to another. Hazlitt’s description is, like the work of Schlegel’s ‘poetic critic’, an independent evocation of feeling; he uses expressive epithets of original poetic description (the ocean, for example, is sullen), and reinforces the iconographic significance of Poussin’s painting by elaborating on and extending its mythological allusions. One would not say that Hazlitt had written an ‘Überpoussin’, but he has at least manipulated diction and metaphor to produce in the reader a complex sensory response which is equivalent to the impression Poussin’s painting might make.25

Paulin, for his part, believes it ‘impossible to overstate the importance’ of Hazlitt’s account of Poussin’s painting, which constitutes the principal portion of ‘the finest opening paragraph in the history of criticism, a paragraph so long and carefully moulded, so epic in its momentum, that it’s like a concentrated essay in itself’.26 In Paulin’s view, ‘Hazlitt’s whole life is packed into’ this paragraph, analysis of whose complex intertextuality permits us to ‘glimpse the deep structure of his critical imagination’.27

None of these accounts is entirely satisfactory, in so far as each somehow isolates the passage in question from the text of which it is an integral part. Bann, for instance, implies that Hazlitt’s essay is devoted in toto to Blind Orion, but crucially this is not the case, as the next section shows. Stange equally neglects the rest of Hazlitt’s text. And Paulin, for whom the essay is ‘more than a piece of art criticism’, indeed rather an ‘elegy’ for Keats and Napoleon ‘and for the [republican] values he shared with them’, additionally considers only the remainder of its first and its final paragraphs. Further, although Bann’s generic likening of the passage on Blind Orion to ‘ekphrasis in the classic mode’ is a salutary reminder that the different ways in which a work of visual art may be verbally represented are limited in number, being determined by the work’s fundamental ontology and phenomenology, and for this reason archaic also, it may be asked whether there does exist any single ‘classic mode’ of ekphrasis. The generic comparison blots out the historical facts of synchronic and diachronic variation in the actual combination and development – for changing communicative purposes – of those ontologically and phenomenologically determined modes of representation.

Again, if, as Stange asserts, Hazlitt’s text does ‘break through’ Lessing-ite commonplaces about the disparity of verbal and visual regimes, it does not dispense with them altogether but endorses while it challenges them. Words perform an indispensable task here in both confirming the non-verbal status of the visual and enhancing its reception through evocation of concerted affective and perceptual witness. And although Stange points to significant features of Hazlitt’s text, he partly misrepresents and misapprehends them. For one thing, dawn and stars do not ‘dance in the painting’ but in the fragment from Paradise Lost interpolated by Hazlitt, which is not directly a representation of anything in the work.28 Secondly, verbal ascription of movement to a depicted figure is quite standard if that figure is depicted as in movement, and was certainly no novelty in 1821, as any number of ekphrases from classical antiquity will show.29

Rather than the ascription of movement as such (or, as Schweik phrases it, the ‘conferring action … on pictures’), what is remarkable in Hazlitt’s text is the ascription of movement through insistent selection of verbs encoding manner: ‘He stalks along, a giant upon earth, and reels and falters in his gait’ (my emphases).30 Again, it is not the ascription of rising movement to the depicted mists which is striking so much as the way the relevant clause – ‘mists rise around him’ – manipulates the verbal representation of space. What cognitive linguists term the ‘frame of reference’ would seem to be of the ‘relative’ type here: the spatial relation between the object to be located (the mists) and the object serving as a reference point (‘him’, i.e. Orion) is specified ‘with respect to the viewer’s own bodily orientation and location’.31 On this reading the preposition ‘around’ would indicate circumscription of the giant on an imaginary plane fronting the viewer. However, ‘around’ also seems to demand a deictic interpretation, as evoking the more-than-visual sense of space radiating from the blind Orion himself. The subjective agency and intentionality evoked in the emphatic sequence of manner-of-motion verbs seems to invest the preposition, which thereby evokes a spatial consciousness experientially centred in the wayfaring giant. While necessarily retaining his/her own vantage point the viewer is impelled as it were to share that spatial consciousness.

The succeeding clause – ‘and veil the sides of the green forests’ – further complicates the spatiality of this verbal representation. While it too deploys a relative frame of reference, this is conflated with another type, termed ‘intrinsic’ in that it ‘relies on a prior assignment of “intrinsic” or inherent parts and facets to objects’.32 Thus, the mists ‘veil the … forests’ in as much as they interpose themselves between the trees and the viewer’s eye. Yet, by transference to the road traversing the forests, the term ‘sides’ again suggests quasi-deictic identification with the wayfaring giant. In addition, ‘sides’ construes the forests as multifaceted bodies with natural orientation, whose spatial autonomy detaches the viewer from the depicted scene. Subsequently, however, identification with a subject of extra-visual sensory experience in direct bodily contact with the viewed landscape is once more induced by the tactile predicates in the clause ‘earth is dank and fresh with dews’, even as the absence of a definite article before ‘earth’ (for the second time in the text) abstracts this noun’s meaning away from the local and corporeal and once more returns the viewer to his/her external viewpoint. Like the use of the quotation from Milton in one of its functions, this last generalising and distancing effect foregrounds the overall significance of the painting as a landscape or, as is subsequently specified in the text, as a representation of morning in nature.33 And this prepares the way for its verbal representation in the sequel as a depiction of original or primordial morning (Bann’s ‘primary fantasy’):

The same atmosphere tinges and imbues every object, the same dull light ‘shadowy sets off’ the face of nature: one feeling of vastness, of strangeness, and of primeval forms pervades the painter’s canvas, and we are thrown back upon the first integrity of things.34

The ambiguities of spatial representation just analysed, with their effect of alternate, if not concurrent projection of the viewer within and disengagement from the depicted scene, are some of the linguistic resources enabling Hazlitt to ‘associate the viewer’s pleasure with the bodily movements of Orion through the awakening landscape’.35 They also imply Hazlitt’s recognition and manipulation of the crucial role to which (as David Carrier has pointed out) the image itself calls the viewer.36 Such manipulation may be explained in such a way as to illuminate not only the ‘notion of synaesthesia’ or Hazlitt’s private sense of the significance of Poussin’s landscape painting, but, more generally, writing on art as such. But this involves seeing it as an integral part of the thematic and rhetorical economy of Hazlitt’s text as a whole.

Extending the analysis: thematic structure and genre

Paulin analyses Hazlitt’s essay as an aggregate of quotations and intertextual links but neglected its thematic, hence too its overt argument structure.37 Thematically, ‘On a Landscape of Nicolas Poussin’ is organised as a sequence of passages each devoted to a specific topic. The structure is summarised in the table given in the appendix, the first column listing the topics that define the constituent passages and the third the subsidiary topics introduced to support the major statements (second column; see below) by way of comparison or exemplification.

The passage specifically devoted to Poussin’s painting (Ib) is prefaced by an account of the mythological figure of Orion (Ia). The semantic link between passages Ia and Ib is metonymical in character: the figure of Orion is ‘the subject of this landscape’. And some form of metonymy governs the relations between all the passages. Passage Ib is followed by others devoted to Poussin, the painter of Blind Orion (II and IV), and to the landscape genre to which Hazlitt assigns this work (III). The concluding passages (V and VI) discuss the pleasures afforded by a ‘life passed among pictures’ and by ‘collections’ of pictures, in particular the innovative occasional exhibitions of Old Master paintings organised since 1815 by the British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom. As Hazlitt himself explains, the link here is that Blind Orion was included in a collection of paintings on display at the Institution’s gallery on Pall Mall at the time of the essay’s publication.38

This fact is somewhat obliquely conveyed by Hazlitt, however:

The Orion, which I have here taken occasion to descant upon, is one of a collection of excellent pictures, as this collection is itself one of a series from the old masters, which have for some years back embrowned the walls of the British Gallery, and enriched the public eye.39

That the occasion to ‘descant upon’ the painting was offered Hazlitt by its current exhibition on Pall Mall is communicated in so indirect and marginal a fashion as to raise the question of the genre(s) to which this specimen of ‘Table Talk’ may be said to belong. And in this regard it is interesting to consider what may be gleaned from Hazlitt’s published correspondence as to the circumstances in which the essay was written and published. Letters dated 9 and 22 June 1821 addressed to the new proprietors of the London Magazine, John Taylor and James Hessey, respectively promise and apologise for having failed to produce an ‘article’ on ‘the British Gallery’.40 Hazlitt apparently refers to the ‘Critical Notice of the Paintings in the British Institution’ announced in ‘The Lion’s Head’ editorial section of the June issue of the magazine as due to appear there the following month.41 It seems, then, that he had been commissioned to write a review of the Institution’s summer exhibition. This would have complemented the April issue’s unsigned review of the foregoing spring show, which Duncan Wu considers to combine text by Thomas Griffiths Wainewright with additions or adjustments made by Hazlitt, then standing in as editor of the London Magazine.42 That ‘On a Landscape of Nicolas Poussin’, announced in July and published the following month, may in a sense have replaced the review Hazlitt had been unable to deliver is strongly suggested by the structure of the essay.43 This effectively inverts and substantially transforms standard modes of organising exhibition critiques in the periodical press, modes which had been established, in reference to the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy, in the final decades of the eighteenth century. Mark Hallett has outlined the ‘limited number of forms’ assumed by the new genre:

Typically, they began with an introductory paragraph or two discussing the show’s overall quality, and what this suggested about the state of British art more generally. One of several directions might then be pursued. Certain writers, for instance, would focus in detail on examples of the most prestigious pictorial genres – history paintings and grand portraits – before providing shorter discussions of a selection of more modest works. Alternatively, and far more commonly, there would be an initial concentration on the most prominent exhibitors, whose works would be dealt with as a group, before pieces by secondary masters would enter into consideration. From the mid-1780s onwards, we also find other critics regularly proceeding in yet another fashion, in which they discuss the exhibition in catalogue order … This method of review, even when made up of short fragments of commentary, could be made to extend over many issues of the newspaper.44

Early nineteenth-century periodical reviews of the exhibitions of the British Institution follow and further develop this set of patterns. For example, critiques of the Institution’s summer exhibition of 1821 printed in the Morning Post and Examiner begin by affirming the uniform excellence of and high ‘degree of enjoyment’ afforded by it.45 They proceed to justify these initial assertions by instancing, respectively, the individual paintings displayed, presented as so many proofs of the pictorial merits typical of the various national schools, and the artists represented, whose characteristic qualities or choice of subjects are encapsulated in a series of epithets and nominal expressions. A significant example of more detailed commentary on a selection of paintings is offered by the Catalogue Raisonnee [sic] of the Pictures in the Late Exhibition of the British Institution, published anonymously in a run of issues of the Morning Chronicle between late September 1815 and mid-January of the following year, and now thought to be the work of the Royal Academician Robert Smirke. The Catalogue Raisonnee was a satirical enumeration of ‘the particular pieces and the several qualities for which it is supposed the Directors more immediately made the selection’ exhibited in the summer of 1815.46 And, with its sequel of the following year, it was the object of Hazlitt’s indignation and scorn in a series of three articles written for the Examiner.47

‘On a Landscape of Nicolas Poussin’ concludes with an overall assessment of the Institution’s current exhibition, of a type that might have prefaced a conventional review of it.48 This assessment is rather more general in scope, however, in so far as it addresses the rationale and value of the new kind of public exhibition of which this was an example (a kind in fervent support of which Hazlitt had written at much greater length in his attack on the Catalogue Raisonnee).49 Furthermore, the passage on Blind Orion and its mythological prelude do not initiate a series of commentaries on individual exhibits. Rather, as becomes apparent to the reader in retrospective overview, they establish the first of those subsidiary topics, statements concerning which serve to validate a set of general statements regarding Poussin as a landscape painter and what might be called the metaphysics of landscape painting. Yet in the economy of Hazlitt’s discourse Blind Orion is effectively promoted from the status of subsidiary to that of primary topic (one of those topics informing and defining its constituent passages and thus determining its primary content). The painting’s verbal representation is assigned the functionally crucial opening position, where it acts as liminary emblem of the philosophy of art expounded in the body of the essay. And this allows the painting itself to be instanced within the essay as epitome and allegory of Poussin’s landscape painting and as a standard of aesthetic value.

What this structural revision amounts to is a ‘viewing experience’ new in mode and quality and at the same time (and by the same token) a new instrument and object of rhetorical validation. Prepared perhaps by decades of exhibition critiques written ‘for consumption beyond the Academy’s walls’, the ‘viewing experience’ offered the reader in or through the essay is removed from actual observation or illustration, being addressed to the mind through the medium of language.50 Considered indeed as an ‘alternative’ account of the British Institution’s summer exhibition closely focused on a single exhibit, ‘On a Landscape of Nicolas Poussin’ dissociates itself from the kind of exhibition critique practised by a fellow-contributor to the London Magazine, Thomas Wainewright. According to David Stewart, ‘Wainewright’s digressive style exemplifies the nature of viewing in the modern metropolis. When not talking to an imagined friend, he is talking to his dog, to his editor, or, most commonly, to his reader: consuming art, he recognises, is a social activity, and the effect this has on criticism is significant.’51 As one of the ‘best examples’ of what Wainewright himself called his ‘“chitty-chatty and off-hand” method’, Stewart cites the review of the Institution’s spring exhibition mentioned above:

He notices painting after painting, pausing at some, dashing past others … The pace is frenetic, and he stops only when he runs out of space … What he offers is not criticism of the exhibition, but an account of the experience of attending it. No work exists in itself, but is seen as part of a show: Jackson is ‘next to’ Landseer, and Wainewright’s account of the exhibition is linear only in the sense that it records what he sees in the order that he sees it. This is breathless, spectacular commentary, unlikely to leave much in the memory but a sense of exhilaration: and it is wholly appropriate to the type of exhibition he is commenting on.52

Hazlitt’s essay, by contrast, abstracts from the experience of the exhibition as ‘social spectacle’ with a view to constructing and reviewing ‘a gallery in the mind’.53 Here is a ‘privatising’ development of the kind deplored by Barrell, one already noted with disapproval in a review of Sketches of Some of the Principal Picture Galleries in England in the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1824. Instead of ‘rich stores of information’ the reviewer finds the book to abound in general ‘reflections’, its few descriptions ‘overloaded with the spirit of Essay writing, a practice too common among Authors of the present day’.54 ‘As essays,’ he concedes, ‘they are tolerably well written, and as such, are adapted to pass away an idle hour in the closet; but as guides they will never be of much utility.’55 Yet what mental abstraction and linguistic mediation actually yield here is an acutely enhanced sense of a particular painting’s expressive power and presence. And the validating statements the essay deploys are graphic and persuasive to the extent that they support more general statements articulating a novel sense and understanding of paintings as impelling sources of expression.

This can be demonstrated through analysis of the semantic and pragmatic relations subsisting between the essay’s primary and subsidiary topics. And this in turn entails consideration of the various kinds of statement combined and coordinated in expounding those topics. Since it is hardly possible here to carry out a comprehensive analysis of the essay, what follows will also concentrate on the passage representing Blind Orion, the subsidiary topic accorded special prominence by Hazlitt, but in such a way as to show how this passage validates assessments of Poussin as a landscape painter in the immediate sequel.

Assertion and argument

First, though, what kinds of statements is it possible to deploy? In studying the language of art writing I have developed an expanded version of speech act theory, which distinguishes more thoroughly than heretofore between representational and interactional varieties of assertion, in other words between varieties of assertion that may be differentiated from one another with reference to the what rather than the how of assertion – to the propositional content expressed rather than to the mode of interpersonal engagement adopted.56

This expanded version of speech act theory has been inductively developed through the empirical analysis of text and has led to the recognition of seven possible varieties of assertion used to represent objects (where objects is used in the broadest sense possible): identifying; classifying; describing; evaluating; characterising; comparing-to; and interpreting. For our immediate purpose it will be necessary to distinguish carefully four of these. Thus, to describe an object is to represent it in terms of what renders it perceptually distinct and of the spatial relations ordering its proper articulation and defining its co-location (in space or time) with other objects. To evaluate an object is to represent it in terms of worth or merit, as satisfying or failing to satisfy a standard of sufficiency relating to a given criterion of value. To characterise an object is to represent it (on the model of human character) in terms of manifest interiority, perceptual gestalt, or overall sensuous or emotive ‘appeal’ to the viewer. And lastly, to interpret an object is to represent it in terms of the objects for which it stands or to which it points in a symbolic or signifying relation.

Assertive propositions are coordinated at a ‘higher’ level of discourse by means of a set of rhetorical relations. These, however, remain unrealised in the text, except for occasional slight signals in the grammar, lexis and punctuation. Of the nine so far identified, elaboration, expansion and explanation coordinate propositions by evoking connections between the states of affairs they represent. Of these three, one in particular will concern us here. Thus, a proposition elaborates on another by sharpening the reference of, or by qualifying an object represented in it. The remaining six – complementation, justification, endorsement, modification, correction and countering – correlate propositions as phases in an argument. Once more, definitions are given only for those actually applied in the following analysis of Hazlitt’s text. Thus, a proposition complements another when the situation it represents relates to that represented in the first as its rational concomitant or corollary (x so y). On the other hand, a proposition justifies another when it is offered in support of the claim made in the first (x for the reason that y).

The whole of the passage devoted to Blind Orion is quoted above, but in segments. It is now given here in its entirety, with the clauses or groups of clauses numbered for ease of reference:

[1a] He is represented setting out on his journey, [1b] with men on his shoulders to guide him, a bow in his hand, and Diana in the clouds greeting him. [2a] He stalks along, a giant upon earth, and reels and falters in his gait, [2b] as if just awaked out of sleep, or uncertain of his way; [2c] ––you see his blindness, though his back is turned. [3a] Mists rise around him, and veil the sides of the green forests; [3b] earth is dank and fresh with dews, the ‘grey dawn and the Pleiades before him dance,’ [3c] and in the distance are seen the blue hills and sullen ocean. [4] Nothing was ever more finely conceived or done. [5a] It breathes the spirit of the morning; its moisture, its repose, its obscurity, waiting the miracle of light to kindle it into smiles: [5b] the whole is, like the principal figure in it, ‘a forerunner of the dawn.’ [6a] The same atmosphere tinges and imbues every object, the same dull light ‘shadowy sets off’ the face of nature: [6b] one feeling of vastness, of strangeness, and of primeval forms pervades the painter’s canvas, [6c] and we are thrown back upon the first integrity of things.57

A literally central feature of this portion of text is [4], which stands out structurally as constituting its only simple (one-clause) sentence and rhetorically as expressing its only evaluative proposition. The section preceding [4] comprises representations of two elements in the depicted scene: the figure of Orion ([1]–[2]) and the landscape through which he moves ([3]). In the section following [4], on the other hand, the painting is represented comprehensively and specifically as a landscape. In a conventional exhibition review some such evaluation as is expressed in [4] might have functioned as the motivating or conclusive assertion in a picture commentary and might accordingly have been placed in initial or final position. [4], by contrast, is centrally placed and generically formulated (‘conceived’ and especially ‘done’ hardly manage to specify a scale of value on which the painting establishes a standard of sufficiency). Nor does it realise the principal claim of this passage: its function is to complement the assertions expressed in [1]–[3] and to trigger justification, duly supplied in [5] and [6]. The principal claim arrives where it might be expected, at the very end of the passage: clause [6c] is the climax to which the passage moves and it complements [5], [6a] and [6b] by interpreting the painting as signifying original, metaphysical wholeness.

If we now look at the sections either side of [4] and consider how these prepare the pivotal evaluation and the culminating interpretation respectively, it will be apparent how much of the representational and rhetorical work here is performed by characterisation. An initial interpretation of the subject in [1a], supplemented by descriptive specifications in [1b], gives way in [2a] to characterisation of Orion’s peculiar ‘gait’ through intensive use of manner-of-motion verbs, as already noted. The imaginatively entertained explanations introduced by ‘as if’ in [2b] exemplify the empathically inferential response to appearance and behaviour which is intrinsic to characterisation and which is ‘dramatised’ (as Schweik puts it) through the use of the second person in [2c]. It is the viewer’s expressly attested capacity to intuit character that motivates the already analysed manipulations of spatiality and interchange of extra-visual sensory experience in [3a] and [3b].

[5] and [6] in their turn contain many lexical signals of characterisation: figurative evocation of infusive vitality (‘it breathes the spirit of the morning’) and overt inscriptions of affectivity, totality and self-identity (‘the whole’; ‘The same … the same’; ‘one feeling’) and of manifest inherent and impalpably diffuse quality (‘The same atmosphere tinges and imbues’). Indeed, the aspects of an object selected for characterisation are what in Husserlian phenomenology are termed its ‘moments’, parts that are materially or notionally inseparable from it as a whole, as opposed to its discrete, potentially or actually independent and themselves divisible ‘pieces’.58 Unlike pieces, moments elude spatial delimitation and discrimination, the special province of description. A propos of characterisation’s typical concern with ‘moments’ and Hazlitt’s own predilection for characterisation, one may again instance an illuminating if hostile comment by an anonymous reviewer writing in the British Review of May 1819:

Mr. Hazlitt is fond of conveying an idea of characteristic excellencies or defects by a single stroke of the pen. A few instances of his particular talent in this way will explain our meaning. The interest of Hamlet is ‘reflex;’ that of Cymbeline is ‘aerial.’ The characteristic of Chaucer is ‘intensity;’ that of Spenser, ‘remoteness;’ Eve is ‘all ivory and gold;’ Juliet ‘voluptuous and glowing.’59

In deploring such ‘unmeaning’ locutions, the writer has unsympathetically and no doubt unwittingly highlighted a distinctive trait of characterisation, which is to individuate an object by means of a summary expression ascriptive of what is here termed an object’s ‘characteristic’, an intrinsic and defining, thus comprehensive or generally pervasive quality – an expression of a kind that might be thought of as tacitly prefaced by the formula ‘in a word’. Indeed, what we have here are minimal examples of what a century and a half later and in a critical climate wholly dominated by characterisation, Roberto Longhi, a propos of art criticism in particular, would commend under the label schedula poetico-critica.60

To move on to the function played by Hazlitt’s representation of Blind Orion within the essay as a whole, the interpretation in [6c] is complemented by the first in a series of statements, almost all characterisations, regarding more general topics (see the central column of the table in the appendix): ‘[7a] This great and learned man might be said to see nature through the glass of time: [7b] he alone has a right to be considered as the painter of classical antiquity.’61 This dual statement regards Poussin’s overall achievement as a painter, and in particular as a painter of nature and of history. Rather than an individual painting, [7a] characterises Poussin’s entire oeuvre. It is complemented by the (implicitly evaluative) classification in [7b], which hyperbolically nominates Poussin sole representative of his class (‘the painter of classical antiquity’ [my emphasis]). Other generalising characterisations punctuate the remainder of the essay. Together with [7a] and [7b] these form its rhetorical backbone, giving rise to numerous justificatory arguments and instantiations. The next characterisation in this series regards a still more general topic – ‘the historic painter’ – and complements one whose immediate subject is rather the achievement of any artist of the stature of Poussin (or of his poetic counterpart, Milton): ‘There is nothing in this “more than natural,” if criticism could be persuaded to think so. The historic painter does not neglect or contravene nature, but follows her more closely up into her fantastic heights, or hidden recesses.’62 The last of these structurally principal statements is also dual and again regards Poussin’s individual achievement taken in its entirety, although this time as a painter tout court: ‘Poussin was, of all painters, the most poetical. He was the painter of ideas.’63

Character and ‘gusto’

The speech act here named characterisation is a resource integral to human speech. As already indicated, its primary function is to represent the ways in which personal character manifests itself. It presupposes the tendency in persons to act and behave in ways indicative of coherent and consistent patterns of thought, affect and judgement, as it presupposes the capacity in speakers to recognise and respond to such patterns. Its primary objects are what the philosopher Thomas Reid called the ‘natural signs’ of ‘the thoughts, purposes, and dispositions of the mind’ legible in ‘the features of the face, the modulations of the voice, and the motion and attitude of the body’.64

Reid claimed that ‘the fine arts are all founded upon this connection, which we may call the natural language of mankind’.65 He presumably alluded to the capacity of art to imitate the signs of this language as they naturally occur, a capacity which has since ancient times given rise to commentary featuring a form of fictive characterisation, the verbal representation of pictorial or sculptural imitations of natural signs treated as though they were real.66 Another (somewhat less archaic) application of characterisation in discourse on visual art is a corollary of understanding particular works as products of individual imagination and artifice. Under this conception, characterisation represents a work as if itself a ‘natural sign’ of its creator, an extended form of personal behaviour and expression. This is the rationale informing the long history of the Italian term maniera, already in use in the fourteenth century with reference to a painter’s personal style of technical execution.67

There are several reasons why Hazlitt’s use of characterisation in ‘On a Landscape of Nicolas Poussin’ marks a decidedly modern phase in the resource’s history. First, it is not specifically technical in focus, and it is evidently dependent on, while it reinterprets, the early modern academic tradition of pictorial genres. Furthermore, in addition to individual works or groups of works, treated as manifestations of the personal style of the painter or of the class of artist he represents, the objects characterised include depictions of animate and inanimate entities, despite the native incapacity of the latter to manifest ‘the natural language of mankind’: ‘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.’68 It is by this mode of characterisation especially that Hazlitt construes the peculiar expressive unity and metaphysical resonance of Poussin’s landscapes:

In Nicholas Poussin … every thing seems to have a distinct understanding with the artist: ‘the very stones prate of their whereabouts:’ each object has its part and place assigned, and is in a sort of compact with the rest of the picture. It is this conscious keeping, and, as it were, internal design, that gives their peculiar character to the works of our artist.69

Again, late eighteenth-century reviewers of public exhibitions had availed themselves of characterisation for purposes of (negative) evaluation, whereby a form of satirical representation served to denigrate a pictorial performance. Consider, for example, this passage on Benjamin West’s Christ Coming Up Out of the Jordan (Bob Jones University Museum and Gallery), extracted from A Liberal Critique on the Exhibition of the Royal Academy (1794) by Anthony Pasquin: 

The waters of Jordan were certainly of a singular nature, if the splashings of this hallowed stream are conveyed by the pencil with aquatic justness. They have the green hue of a stagnate pool, and not the liquid transparency of a limpid brook. The figure of Christ looks like a deserter, who had been recently whipped, and was sneaking off to a surgeon, with a blanket over his wounds.70

As a reviewer of exhibitions Hazlitt too deployed this (ultimately) evaluative tactic. In 1814 he had written of another painting by West, ‘Lot and his Family is one of those finished specimens of metallurgy which too often proceed from the President’s hardware manufactory’.71 And of Washington Allston’s picture of Diana Bathing 1812 he had asserted, ‘The knowledge of the human figure in this pleasing composition might be opposed with advantage to the utter ignorance of it in some Musidora sketches, in which the limbs seem to have been kneaded in paste, and are thrown together like a bundle of drapery’.72 In ‘On a Landscape of Nicolas Poussin’, on the other hand, characterisation functions independently of evaluation and it functions determinatively: it dominates the rhetorical structure at the level of claim and justification. It thus signals a critical stage in the gradual eclipse of evaluation in the course of the nineteenth century and in the concomitant reconceptualisation of the work of art as, first and foremost, an epiphany of ‘inner’ quality and coherence. Lastly, it is the final object of characterisation in its broadest sense – the ‘internal design’ of persons and things intuited by responsive viewers – which informs Hazlitt’s closing evocation of the transfigurative potency of pictures (‘the bright consummate essences of things’), as it also constitutes the doctrine at the essay’s theoretical and philosophical core.73

Hazlitt does not distinctly name object or doctrine in this essay. He does, though, elsewhere, by means of the term ‘gusto’.74 And what makes Hazlitt so conspicuous and remarkable a figure in the rise to prominence of characterisation in writing on art is that his elaboration of this concept brought the rationale informing the resource into a degree at least of theoretical focus.

Hazlitt’s ‘gusto’ has commonly been glossed in terms of ‘intensity’ and of ‘synaesthesia’. Bryson, for instance, like Bann, equates ‘gusto’ with synaesthesia and defines its role in Hazlitt’s writing on art as ‘a central criterion of value’.75 Wu, on the other hand, explains the term as ‘an index of the imaginative intensity with which the artist endows his work’.76 Denise Gigante implicitly combines these two meanings, explaining that ‘Gusto was a critical term for Hazlitt to indicate a kind of full-bodied aesthetic experience, ripe with sensual enjoyment’,77 while Chase more explicitly correlates them:

To use a less fantastic word, we might say, I think, that Hazlitt means simply ‘intensity’, with the corollary that in painting this intensity results in the excitation of more senses than that to which the primary appeal is made. Sensations of smell, of taste, or of hearing are mingled with those of sight, and the complexity of these sensations intensifies our emotional reaction, since more of our functions enter into it.78

These accounts are incomplete in so far as they overlook the ontological and phenomenological thrust of the concept. What ‘gusto’ names is primarily – or ultimately – a quality of individual objects, especially as revealed through visual representation and as this representation is explicated in verbal commentary. ‘Gusto’ entails intensity and synaesthesia in every phase or aspect of the objects’ phenomenology – perception, representation, reception and explication – in as much as the quality it intends, though visually manifest, or rendered such through representation in art, eludes sight and conceptualisation in terms largely fitted to visual perception, demanding affective engagement and indirect or fictive construal, through recourse to metaphor and simile. ‘Gusto’ is that ‘new interest unborrowed from the eye’ for which Hazlitt commended a landscape of Richard Wilson’s in 1814.79

The ontological point of Hazlitt’s concept is highlighted in his principal definition of it, in the corresponding term, in the opening sentence of the essay ‘On Gusto’ (1816): ‘Gusto in art is power or passion defining any object’.80 The essay goes on to specify that the province of ‘gusto’ includes not only things possessing expression – things capable of ‘natural signs’ – but also ‘things without expression’, for instance ‘the natural appearances of objects, as mere colour or form’.81 However, under evident pressure of semantic extension the distinction is immediately blurred: Hazlitt stresses that ‘In one sense … there is hardly any object entirely devoid of expression, without some character of power belonging to it, some precise association with pleasure or pain’. The purpose of ‘gusto’, at all events, is to achieve object-defining ‘truth of character from the truth of feeling’.82 It aims to reveal to perception what in ‘The Indian Jugglers’ (1821) and in reference to ‘the objects of fine art’ Hazlitt terms ‘inner structure’, to make such structure perceptually manifest with the assistance of ‘taste and imagination’.83 It aims to exhibit and interpret the ‘natural language’ of objects as objects of human experience. In ‘The Indian Jugglers’ again Hazlitt writes that ‘Objects, like words, have a meaning; and the true artist is the interpreter of this language, which he can only do by knowing its application to a thousand other objects in a thousand other situations’.84 Here is the reason (to return to ‘On Gusto’) why ‘gusto in painting is where the impression made on one sense excites by affinity those of another’.85

Where does Hazlitt’s concept come from? The noun ‘gusto’ is of course a loan from the Italian for ‘taste’ and covers many of the senses conveyed by its original, including those in which ‘gusto’ functions as a synonym for artistic maniera and in which it signifies aesthetic discrimination and refinement.86 Those senses occur in Italian from the mid-sixteenth century, becoming much more common by the mid-seventeenth.87 The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following definitions of ‘gusto’, with usages for each dating from the early to mid-seventeenth century (with the exception of the last, of which the earliest example is dated 1713):

1. Individual or particular liking, relish, or fondness … 2. Keen relish or enjoyment displayed in speech or action … 3. Art. Style in which a work of art is executed; artistic style; occas. prevailing or fashionable style in matters of taste. Often with qualification as great (= It. gran gusto), high, noble … †4. Aesthetic appreciation or perception. Obs. rare … †5. Flavour or savour (of food, etc.). Obs. rare [.]88

Of Hazlitt’s ‘gusto’ (‘one of his most interesting and elusive critical concepts’) Bann remarks, ‘It is not, as far as I know, taken from any established critical vocabulary’.89 In a pertinent comparison with Hazlitt’s use of the term ‘character’ Joel Haefner distinguishes his use of ‘gusto’ from Joshua Reynolds’s use of the Italian expression gusto grande.90 The reference is to Reynolds’s third Discourse, where he instances diverse names for those ‘excellencies in the art of painting beyond what is commonly called the imitation of nature’:

The Moderns are not less convinced than the Ancients of this superior power existing in the art; nor less sensible of its effects. Every language has adopted terms expressive of this excellence. The gusto grande of the Italians, the beau idéal of the French, and the great style, genius, and taste among the English, are but different appellations of the same thing.91

Earlier uses in English of this purportedly Italian expression occur in writings by John Durant Breval, John Macky and, perhaps most significantly, Joseph Addison.92 In all of these it is largely applied to architecture. This may in part explain why, though it occurs in the writings of Reynolds’s contemporary (and detractor), Anton Raphael Mengs,93 it is not found in any of the chief Italian treatises on painting or collections of artists’ (principally painters’) lives of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as Giorgio Vasari’s Vite de’ più eccellenti architetti, pittori e scultori (1550, 1568), Raffaelle Borghini’s Il riposo (1585), Giovan Pietro Bellori’s Vite de’ pittori, scultori e architecti moderni (1672) and Filippo Baldinucci’s Vocabolario toscano dell’arte del disegno (1681) and Notizie de’ professori del disegno da Cimabue in qua (1681–1728). It does appear in the Dizionario portatile delle belle Arti (1781), but this is a translation of the Dictionnaire portatif des beaux-arts by Jacques Lacombe (1752) and gusto grande is here a calque of the French (grand goût).94 Indeed, it seems likely that (like the Oxford English Dictionary’s ‘gran gusto’, an expression in which gran can only function as an intensifier and signify a high degree of taste), gusto grande is a sort of inter-linguistic illusion.95 Perhaps it was intended to Italianise the Anglo-Italian expression ‘grand Gusto’ used by John Savage to translate grand goût in his English version of Roger De Piles’s Abrégé de la vie des peintres (1699).96 This lexical hybrid at any rate enjoyed considerable success over the next century. It merited an entry of its own in the second volume of John Harris’s Lexicon Technicum (1710), a précis of Savage’s translation of the relevant passage in De Piles.97 And this entry was itself replicated (except for the tell-tale citation of the French cognate goût) in Chambers’s Cyclopoedia (1728) and (with definitive dropping of the definite article in front of ‘grand Gusto’) in the Encylopoedia Britannica and Encyclopoedia Perthensis.98

Chase’s second definition of Hazlitt’s ‘gusto’ as ‘the condition of grandeur in art’ is therefore misleading.99 In Hazlitt’s use the term has little to do with the ‘grand style’ or ‘the sublime’ (although M.H. Abrams stressed its derivation from ‘the Longinian emphasis on critical responsiveness and “enthrallment”’).100 Nor does it designate the fictive organ of aesthetic discernment, appetite or pleasure – meanings largely belonging to the province of evaluation – or the distinctive style of an artist. Hazlitt’s sense of ‘gusto in art’ seems to appropriate ordinary, non-aesthetic and literally gustatory uses of the loan and to privilege the more objective over the more subjective interpretations of which it is susceptible. It thus incorporates something of the Oxford English Dictionary’s second (characterising rather than evaluative) meaning: ‘Keen relish or enjoyment displayed in speech or action’. It also foregrounds the obsolete fifth meaning – ‘Flavour or savour (of food, etc.)’ – which for Samuel Johnson was primary.101 Although the British Review’s hostile critic, cited above, was unable to see its relevance, Hazlitt figuratively extends this objective meaning to the experiential ‘flavour’ of things, their affective potency as objects of experience, intuited and embodied by ‘power and passion’ effecting and registering transfiguration in art.102

Hazlitt must not have been unconcerned with the way in which this quality is construed in language.103 Certainly, his use and explication of the term ‘gusto’ – his supposition, for instance, that the quality it denotes has the capacity figuratively to sting the mind – highlight two major hallmarks of characterisation as a mode of representing inanimate objects in speech: fictivity as such and, more particularly, the non-veridical representation of extra-visual sensory experience.104 This indeed explains the recurrent recourse to synaesthetic effects in his criticism of works of visual art, such as the evocation of ‘dank’ earth in the Blind Orion passage analysed above and the singing of the wind, the rustling branches and the twanging of bows in Titian’s The Death of Actaeon c.1559–75 (National Gallery, London) which forms part of ‘On Gusto’:

Again, Titian’s landscapes have a prodigious gusto, both in the colouring and forms. We shall never forget one that we saw many years ago in the Orleans Gallery of Acteon hunting. It had a brown, mellow, autumnal look. The sky was of the colour of stone. The winds seemed to sing through the rustling branches of the trees, and already you might hear the twanging of bows resound through the tangled mazes of the wood.105

Hazlitt’s ‘gusto’ names that general property of objects, especially of works of visual art, whose construal in speech entails the selection and representation of parts or aspects (‘moments’) integral to their perceptual and aesthetic character and which determine their ‘look’ or unique manner of engaging the viewer.106 Indeed, the presence in this passage of the noun ‘look’ – like that of the verb ‘seem’, with its implicit evocation of the viewer’s crucial responsive role – is an unequivocal index of characterisation.

In conclusion, Hazlitt cannot ‘be said to have made later art criticism possible’, but his theory of ‘gusto’ and his practical illustration of the concept in his criticism are important symptoms of a macroscopic process underway in Western culture between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whereby the resources available to speakers for the discursive representation of works of art were subject to re-ordering or re-orientation through the foregrounding and intensification of characterisation. As has already in part been suggested by Stephen Bann and Tom Nichols, in elaborating on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century theories of maniera, manner, style, taste and indeed gusto, Hazlitt’s use of the latter term is seen to be a significant forebear of later theoretical formulations of character in art: the ‘piercing pholas-like mind’s tongue, that works and tastes into the very rock heart’ of Ruskin’s penetrative imagination,107 the ‘illusion of varying muscular sensations inside [the] palm and fingers’ communicated by Bernhard Berenson’s tactile values,108 the absorbing presence of Walter Benjamin’s ‘aura’,109 the ‘empathic, identificatory pull’ exerted through Adrian Stokes’s ‘incantatory process’ or ‘invitation in art’,110 and the ‘variously oblique or tropical’ forms of ‘indefinite description’ demanded by the ‘visual character’ or ‘interest’ favoured (and judiciously left undefined) by Michael Baxandall.111