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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Gainsborough Portrait

Thomas Gainsborough, "'The Morning Walk' William Hallett and His Wife Elizabeth, nee Stephen", 1785 (National Gallery, London)
Willem de Kooning, Clam Digger, Bronze, 1972 (Xavier Fourcade, Inc., New York)

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"Now, I say, the beautiful is the symbol of the morally good, and only in this light (a point of view natural to every one, and one which every one exacts from others as a duty) does it give us pleasure with an attendant claim to the agreement of every one else, . . ." Immanuel Kant, Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, (1790), Section 59.

The Kantian notion that "the beautiful" is the morally good, that which is morally correct, and which presupposes that every viewer tacitly agrees on what is beautiful and will enjoy the pleasure of the perceived beauty on that basis, is sustained by a social and political order. [I wrote this sentence a long time ago, and I see now that it is not entirely correct in the way it characterizes what I referred to as the "Kantian notion."  Actually, Kant is of course at pains to point out that his critique of the aesthetic judgment never touches upon the practical reason, or morality, which has to do with will and desire, and not with pleasure. Nevertheless, I have to say that there is an implicit "morality" in Kant's theory of the aesthetic judgment, namely, its reliance on Reason.  As Nietzsche said, behind Reason there is always Morality:  that which is rational is always assumed to be also "good".  But, as well, there is a sense in which Kant's aesthetic theory of consensus, of "that which we are all expected to agree upon" is a form of morality, although a morality about what we feel when we perceive.  So, I don't entirely dismiss what I said, but only wish to clarify it a little.  And, of course, the subject of Kant's great Third Critique is a very complex subject about which a lot has been written, and which I still consider to be, as I did when I first wrote this in Pasadena, in 2005, a very important issue.]

[And, I continue] That is ultimately, after all, what morality is. It says: What *is* is as it *ought* to be. For every one to agree that X is beautiful, there has to be a pre-existing agreement on what is 'allowed' to be beautiful. Beauty is therefore prescribed by authority and undergird by an aristocratic ideal. What is beautiful is what is best and good, and we all must agree on what it is, and, if we 'exact that from others as a duty,' like Kant says, then we have an aristocratical ideal in place, which must be universally acknowledged by the culture."

 Immanuel Kant (1724-18040

For Kant, the beautiful can be the work of art itself, the quality of craftsmanship and creativity that the painting or sculpture reveals, or it may be the subject that the work of art represents

At the time that Kant was writing his third Critique in Koenigsberg, Gainsborough was painting large-scale portraits of his rich bourgeois patrons in England. Once completed, the paintings were no doubt paid for and admired by the sitters, the patrons of the work, their friends and visitors, and eventually by the patrons of the National Gallery in London, to this day. All would, and usually do, agree, that the painting is beautiful and that it is *about* that which is beautiful. One can imagine the comments of the viewers upon seeing the portrait of William and Elizabeth Hallett entitled “The Morning Walk” the portrait illustrated by the copy above: 'What a good likeness of William and Elizabeth Hallett!' 'What a handsome couple' 'What elegance, dignity and aristocratic demeanor!' 'What a beautiful dog!'

How can we say of this painting, as Kant would have said, that it stands for what is morally good?

My feeling, my own subjective assessment in the early twenty first century, is that the painting is indeed beautiful, and it is beautiful because it is elegant, and it represents the idea of elegance, of its beauty, in the age when it was painted.  It  is that the painting is remarkably elegant and, I believe, by far the best, or one of the best, of Gainsborough's great portraits. Even the "Blue Boy" fails to convey the dignity of the aristocratic ideal as this painting does, because of that faint hint of perversity that pervades the portrait of Jonathan Buttall. "The Morning Walk", on the other hand, is quintessentially aristocratic, both in its craftsmanship and artistry, and because of how precisely it represents the ideal of its time: that which was the most aesthetically desirable and best in its society. The question that prompted me to write this is, how does the artist convey this aristocratic ideal, which is the 'beautiful' in the Kantian sense: as "symbolic" of the morally good?

And my argument would be as follows: Every detail of the painting is crafted so as to reveal elegance and dignified demeanor. I know I seem to be begging the question ('Why is it aristocratic? Because it depicts the aristocratic ideal'), but withhold your objections for a moment. The backdrop is theatrical, in that it is carefully designed to *present* the couple to us, as in a play, or a Mozart opera. This 'morning walk' has been staged for us. William walks in his black suit against a dark background, whereas Elizabeth is seen against a background of foliage and clouds. The willowy, feathery, foliage blends easily into a willowy and feathery sky of clouds. The beautiful white dog, the cloudy background, and Elizabeth's white dress form a circle of white light to the left of the painting. The bright white, right leg of William, echoes that white circle of the left hemisphere on the dark right side of the painting, and serves to contrast the polished, smooth, black suit William is wearing, and the darkness of the background against which he moves. Black and white are the colors of bourgeois elegance, from the time of the Puritan revolution to the tuxedo of our times, which is only used in the most important ceremonial occasions. This painting is primarily black and white. The pale greens and browns and pinks of the background don't disturb what is primarily a black and white color scheme. I think this is the key to the elegance of this painting. There are two brief moments of black on Elizabeth, in her hat and belt, contrasting with her white aura, and two brief moments of white on William, his stockings and his neck piece, against the deep darkness of his black suit. The faint violet-purple hues on Elizabeth's veil, over her right arm, the feather in her hat, and on William's wig, which are echoed in the clouds and distant hills of the background, serve to enhance the basic aristocratic black and white palette of this painting.

The demeanor of the couple, as they walk arm in arm, is rich in the expression of an aristocratic ideal. They do not look at the viewer, but rather to the side, indifferent to their public, as if something was happening somewhere to their right, in the distance of the Park. But whatever it is that they are looking at doesn't seem to interest them very much. They show aristocratic indifference. Both have their mouths shut. They appear calm, he is serious and his gaze is a touch more intense than hers. They show aristocratic tranquility. Even the dog at her side doesn't seem to be acting very rambunctiously, as most dogs would on a walk in the Park. The dog is well behaved. William and Elizabeth, nee Stephen, both have their right foot forward, and they pace on their land with confidence. Finally, the hands, the most aristocratic of the extremities of the human body, endlessly worked on, cured, cared for, anointed, gloved, protected and displayed, how are they displayed? It's always a little difficult to know what to do with the hands when they are not being used, particularly when they are not meant to be used, but rather only to be displayed. Where to put them? In this case, Elizabeth holds her veil lightly with her right hand, and her left hand rests on William's crooked arm. His right hand is in his jacket, like Napoleon's would be, later, in his portraits, and his left hand carefully holds on to the flap of his jacket, as if wanting to keep the jacket properly in place. He moves forward as if in a ceremonial procession, very conscious of how he looks, with his bride on his arm. They might as well have been walking up the main aisle of a church, to be wed before an altar.

Gainsborough's painting of "The Morning Walk" presents us with an aristocratic ideal and, at the same time, it preserves in place an aristocratic ideal. That's the point of this esthetic. It's what the Media always does: *This* is what is good and best and morally and esthetically superior. It is 'The Beautiful.' At a time when the English aristocratic society was being ravaged and undermined by the seismic social consequences of the industrial revolution, Gainsborough made a work of art out of the compromised aristocratic ideal of the late eighteenth century. He is saying 'this is what is beautiful and best.' And that is the corroboration of Kant's view of the beautiful, namely, that which is also morally good and correct. The painting upholds a hierarchic state of affairs, which is the threatened status quo of the culture.


One of the tasks of Modernism, it seems to me, was to dethrone this notion of the beautiful. I don't know whether it has replaced it. The bronze sculpture of Willem de Kooning, which I illustrate below, is a representation of a working dude, a clam digger on any empty beach. It depicts the worker on his own, alone on the earth, surviving through his brutalizing and body-destroying labor. The man holds some objects in his gouged and mangled arms. His hands have disappeared into the amorphous objects he carries in them. His rough, wobbly, legs, stand on huge, clod-hopping, booted, feet. These are the big, earth-bound feet that carry him daily through his labors. His face is anonymous, his eye sockets empty. He is a clod of earth. If the artist hadn't told us the creature is a clam digger we wouldn't know what kind of a human it was, except that he was a laboring human. It is a human being, in all its pathos and courage and dignity that the sculpture represents. But is it beautiful?

Let's say that we can make an argument that Claim Digger is a work that contains the beautiful in it, and I can't think of many people that would say so, is it still a "symbol" of what is "morally good?" Does it represent *what ought to be* as the Gainsborough painting intends to do? Or does it simply represent *what is*?

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