As famous last words go, it’s not quite up there with “Et Tu, Brute” or Adam Faith’s “Channel 5 is all s**t, isn’t it?”. But William Hazlitt’s final utterance – “Well, I’ve had a happy life’’ – was still meaningful.
The radical, early-19th-century essayist died in poverty in a Soho lodging house, aged 52, his reputation in tatters, his stomach riddled with cancer, and with two broken marriages behind him. Eager to let his room again forthwith, his landlady even hid his body under the bed as she showed around would-be, new tenants. Judging by his last words, however, Hazlitt had died content – after a decent life’s work.
Certainly, even by the non-specialist standards of his day, he had a mighty range: a philosopher, journalist, political commentator, grammar theorist, theatre critic, art critic, travel writer, memoirist – not to mention, biographer of Napoleon. Here was a serious thinker, for whom every pursuit fed into life’s deeper questions. His rise coincided with that of Romanticism. Indeed, though our popular image of the movement is dominated by its poets - Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Co. – Hazlitt was a key figure too.
His art criticism is currently the subject of a display at Tate Britain, twinning a selection of canvases with texts by Hazlitt on each one. His Romanticism was best reflected by the term “gusto”, which he coined to describe that quality in art which offers a sense of vibrancy and vitality. It entailed a full-on, aesthetic experience, not simply high-minded appreciation.
The colours of Titian and contours of Michelangelo were deemed “full of gusto”. However, never one to mince words, Hazlitt came down hard on countless of his peers, stressing “this country hasn’t produced a single painter who has made even a faint approach to the great Italians”.
He does seem to have been a fan of Turner’s, specifically his way with light. In 1814’s Appulia in Search of Appulus, the artist adapted the Ovidian tale of an Italian shepherd transformed into an olive tree, and Hazlitt admired the glowing Claudian landscape. But “the figures are execrable… an impudent and obstrusive vulgarity”, he wrote. “The utter want of capacity to draw a distinct outline with the force and fullness of this artist’s eye for colour is astonishing.” Ouch.
Perhaps, Hazlitt’s most famous quote of all also came at Turner’s expense, in reference to Snow Storm: Hannibal & his Army Crossing the Alps and his tendency, as his career progressed, to indulge in the atmospherics of a scene, almost to the point of abstraction. Hazlitt lamented how “all is without form” and Turner “painted pictures of nothing, and very like”.
Forever forthright, in many ways Hazlitt is as relevant now as ever – our digital age being one when everyone on earth seems to be a critic, yet the art of criticism extends little beyond “Liking” and “Sharing”.
Gainsborough also came in for stick; likewise David Wilkie, the “genre painter” of scenes from everyday life. Wilkie was hugely popular, his works – like 1806’s Blind Fiddler, of an itinerant musician playing for a humble, country family – often requiring barriers at the Royal Academy to protect them from admiring throngs. Hazlitt, however, found genre scenes rather base and contrived. “I don’t remember a single joke in Wilkie,” he wrote, “except that very bad one of the boy in Blind Fiddler [mimicking the violin-player by] scraping a gridiron.”
Whether you find yourself agreeing with Hazlitt or not, what’s undeniable is the vigour and lucidity of his prose. He was a critic as artist-in-his-own-right, redeemed from being the mere servant of an artist, poet or playwright.
Hazlitt was also a pioneering critic, appearing at a time when public galleries were first being established (the National Gallery in 1824, for instance); and when technological developments were bringing newspapers to a mass audience. The steam press’s invention in 1814 meant they could be printed in thousands (rather than hundreds), while mail coaches allowed them to reach all corners of the land quicker than before.
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