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.
Interestingly, in his youth, Hazlitt was a painter himself: a portraitist of not inconsiderable talent, if the self-portrait on show is anything to go by. He broods in it like a quintessential Romantic hero.
He kept a special interest in portraiture throughout his life, preferring artists who gave a rich sense of character rather than just pander to how an aristocrat wished to be painted.
Impudent: 'Apullia in Search of Appullus', 1812, by JMW Turner (Copyright: Tate)
Part of the very English tradition of Rational Dissent – à la Newton and Locke – Hazlitt demanded a truth from portraiture and lambasted George III’s favourite, Benjamin West, in particular. Portraits like Lady Beauchamp-Proctor “exhibit the mask, not the soul, of expression”, he wrote. “Mr West saw nothing in the human face but bones and cartilage… as might be given to wooden puppets pulled by wires.”
All of which begs the question, who, if anyone, did Hazlitt actually like? Well, Hogarth, certainly, for his honesty. He also seems to have liked history painting – though not in the idealising manner of Richard Westall and Sir Joshua Reynolds (first president of the Royal Academy). Hazlitt commented that, in Reynolds, “there’s often no connection between the picture and its subject but the name”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hazlitt racked up enemies at quite a rate. His attacks extended beyond the art world into literature, politics and most spheres of public life. He also maintained the highest regard for Napoleon, going on a depressed, drinking binge after Waterloo and insisting the dictator had remained true to the principles of the French Revolution.
What really did for Hazlitt, though, was an ill-advised affair with a landlord’s daughter half his age, followed by his even more ill-advised declaration of that affair in the book Liber Amoris. It became a stick which all his moralising opponents could beat him with. His reputation never really recovered – and nowadays he’s barely read.
The Tate display goes some small way to reviving him, as well as allowing us the intriguing chance to see painters we now consider masters through the eyes of an unimpressed, contemporary critic. As someone who trashed Turner and Gainsborough, one purrs at what he’d have made of the homogenised, commercialised, art world of today – and how surgically he might have cut into it.
‘William Hazlitt: Through the Eyes of a Critic’, Tate Britain, to Apr 5; tate.org.uk 020 7887 8888
We find people of a decided and original, and others of a more general and versatile taste. I have sometimes thought that the most acute and original-minded men made bad critics. They see everything too much through a particular medium. What does not fall in with their own bias and mode of composition strikes them as common-place and factitious. What does not come into the direct line of their vision, they regard idly, with vacant, 'lack-lustre eye.' The extreme force of their original impressions, compared with the feebleness of those they receive at second-hand from others, oversets the balance and just proportion of their minds. Men who have fewer native resources, and are obliged to apply oftener to the general stock, acquire by habit a greater aptitude in appreciating what they owe to others. Their taste is not made a sacrifice to their egotism and vanity, and they enrich the soil of their minds with continual accessions of borrowed strength and beauty. I might take this opportunity of observing, that the person of the most refined and least contracted taste I ever knew was the late Joseph Fawcett, the friend of my youth. He was almost the first literary acquaintance I ever made, and I think the most candid and unsophisticated. He had a masterly perception of all styles and of every kind and degree of excellence, sublime or beautiful, from Milton'sParadise Lost to Shenstone'sPastoral Ballad, from Butler'sAnalogy down to Humphrey Clinker. If you had a favourite author, he had read him too, and knew all the best morsels, the subtle traits, the capital touches. 'Do you like Sterne?' 'Yes, to be sure,' he would say; 'I should deserve to be hanged if I didn't!' His repeating some parts of Comus with his fine, deep, mellow-toned voice, particularly the lines, 'I have heard my mother Circe with the Sirens three,' etc., and the enthusiastic comments he made afterwards, were a feast to the ear and to the soul. He read the poetry of Milton with the same fervour and spirit of devotion that I have since heard others read their own. 'That is the most delicious feeling of all,' I have heard him explain, 'to like what is excellent, no matter whose it is.' In this respect he practised what he preached. He was incapable of harbouring a sinister motive, and judged only from what he felt. There was no flaw or mist in the clear mirror of his mind. He was as open to impressions as he was strenuous in maintaining them. He did not care a rush whether a writer was old or new, in prose or in verse -- 'What he wanted,' he said, 'was something to make him think.' Most men's minds are to me like musical instruments out of tune. Touch a particular key, and it jars and makes harsh discord with your own. They like Gil Blas, but can see nothing to laugh at in Don Quixote [Cervantes]: they adore Richardson, but are disgusted with Fielding. Fawcett had a taste accommodated to all these. He was not exceptious. He gave a cordial welcome to all sort, provided they were the best in their kind. He was not fond of counterfeits or duplicates. His own style was laboured and artificial to a fault, while his character was frank and ingenuous in the extreme. He was not the only individual whom I have known to counteract their natural disposition in coming before the public, and by avoiding what they perhaps thought an inherent infirmity, debar themselves of their real strength and advantages. A heartier friend or honester critic I never coped withal. He has made me feel (by contrast) the want of genuine sincerity and generous sentiment in some that I have listened to since, and convinced me (if practical proof were wanting) of the truth of that text of Scripture -- 'That had I all knowledge and could speak with the tongues of angels, yet without charity I were nothing!' I would rather be a man of disinterested taste and liberal feeling, to see and acknowledge truth and beauty wherever I found it, than a man of greater and more original genius, to hate, envy, and deny all excellence but my own -- but that poor scanty pittance of it (compared with the whole) which I had myself produced!
There is another race of critics who might be designated as the Occult School -- vere adepti. They discern no beauties but what are concealed from superficial eyes, and overlook all that are obvious to the vulgar part of mankind. Their art is the transmutation of styles. By happy alchemy of mind they convert dross into gold -- and gold into tinsel. They see farther into a millstone than most others. If an author is utterly unreadable, they can read him for ever: his intricacies are their delight, his mysteries are their study. They prefer Sir Thomas Browne to the Rambler by Dr. Johnson, and Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy to all the writers of the Georgian Age. They judge of works of genius as misers do of hid treasure -- it is of no value unless they have it all to themselves. They will no more share a book than a mistress with a friend. If they suspected their favourite volumes of delighting any eyes but their own, they would immediately discard them from the list. Theirs are superannuated beauties that every one else has left off intriguing with, bedridden hags, a 'stud of nightmares.' This is not envy or affectation, but a natural proneness to singularity, a love of what is odd and out of the way. They must come at their pleasures with difficulty, and support admiration by an uneasy sense of ridicule and opposition. They despise those qualities in a work which are cheap and obvious. They like a monopoly of taste and are shocked at the prostitution of intellect implied in popular productions. In like manner, they would choose a friend or recommend a mistress for gross defects; and tolerate the sweetness of an actress's voice only for the ugliness of her face. Pure pleasures are in their judgment cloying and insipid --
- An ounce of sour is worth a pound of sweet!
The last sort I shall mention are verbal critics -- mere word-catchers, fellows that pick out a word in a sentence and a sentence in a volume, and tell you it is wrong.7 These erudite persons constantly find out by anticipation that you are deficient in the smallest things -- that you cannot spell certain words or join the nominative case and the verb together, because to do this is the height of their own ambition, and of course they must set you down lower than their opinion of themselves. They degrade by reducing you to their own standard of merit; for the qualifications they deny you, or the faults they object, are so very insignificant, that to prove yourself possessed of the one or free from the other is to make yourself doubly ridiculous. Littleness is their element, and they give a character of meanness to whatever they touch. They creep, buzz, and fly-blow. It is much easier to crush than to catch these troublesome insects; and when they are in your power your self-respect spares them. The race is almost extinct: -- one or two of them are sometimes seen crawling over the pages of the Quarterly Review!_______________________________
1 Hazlitt's "On Criticism" is to be found in Table Talk, Essays on Men and Manners (1822).
2 [Original note.] A Mr. Rose and the Rev. Dr. Kippis were for many years its principal support. Mrs. Rose (I have heard my father say) contributed the Monthly Catalogue. There is sometimes a certain tartness and the woman's tongue in it. It is said of Gray's Elegy, 'This little poem, however humble its pretensions, is not without elegance or merit.' The characters of prophet and critic are not always united.
3 [Original note.] There are some splendid exceptions to this censure. His comparison between Ovid and Virgil and his character of Shakespear are masterpieces of their kind.
4 [Original note.] We have critics In the present day  who cannot tell what to make of the tragic writers of Queen Elizabeth's age (except Shakespear, who passes by prescriptive right), and are extremely puzzled to reduce the efforts of their 'great and irregular' power to the standard of their own slight and showy common-places. The truth is, they had better give up the attempt to reconcile such contradictions as an artificial taste and natural genius; and repose on the admiration of verses which derive their odour from the scent of rose leaves inserted between the pages, and their polish from the smoothness of the paper on which they are printed. They, and such writers as Decker, and Webster, Beaumont and Fletcher, Ford and Marlowe, move in different orbits of the human intellect, and need never jostle.
5 [Original note.] The intelligent reader will be pleased to understand that there is here a tacit allusion to Squire Western's significant phrase of Hanover Rats.
6 [Original note.] Of the two the latter alternative is more likely to happen. We abuse and imitate them. They laugh at, but do not imitate us.
7 [Original note.] The title of Ultra-Crepidarian critics has been given to a variety of this species.