The Myth of the Artist in George Morland’s Studio
The Artist in His Studio with His Man Gibbs is the last image that George Morland, the celebrated eighteenth-century painter of rural scenes, painted of himself (fig. 1, circa 1802). The canvas stands out amongst other British self-portraits of the period for the unusual importance it gives to the setting of the painter’s activity. A disheveled Morland is here surrounded by various objects alluding to both his art and his dissolute lifestyle. The visit to the artist’s painting room, a cliché of much Old Master self-portraiture,1 seems here to be reversed into a parody: Morland’s studio appears as the cold and squalid attic which (as one of his obituaries would put it) “served him for every purpose.”2 The impenetrable eyes and shadowy expression which were by now conventionally accepted to indicate a condition of artistic melancholy become a dumb look and a pathetic grimace, as Morland looks over his shoulder at us, showing no interest in greeting his guests.3 Similarly, the high seriousness of art is diminished by its juxtaposition with cooking: the artist at the easel is mirrored by his servant Gibbs at the stove, as if painting was a mere means of fulfilling physical necessities.
This article explores Morland’s studio in this self-portrait as a crucial site for the construction of his artistic personality. In describing his art as the direct expression of his imagination, his lifestyle as outrageously bohemian, and himself as a painter disinterested in material rewards and misunderstood [End Page 151] by the cultural establishment, willing to sacrifice his life for the love of art, Morland invented an extremely modern persona and recommended to posterity his own myth.
Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) had passed away a decade earlier, but his towering figure still offered the model of the ideal artistic personality for Morland’s contemporaries. This was not surprising, given that Reynolds had been the most successful British artist of his age, the leading figure of contemporary artistic debates, and the author of a large number of self-portraits diffused through print. In his Discourse VI, he had stated: “The purport of this discourse…is, to caution you against that false opinion, but too prevalent among artists, of the imaginary powers of native genius, and its sufficiency in great works.”4 As President of the Royal Academy, an institution founded on the idea that art could be taught, Reynolds had promoted the image of the morally-impeccable intellectual artist, whose [End Page 152] refinement was the product of a solid academic education based on the imitation of exemplary artworks. Consistent with these views, Reynolds’s self-portraits frequently stressed his status as man of letters and his achievement of an elevated social position.5
In their outward appearance, Morland’s earlier self-portraits had adhered to this vision of the artist: here he described himself as a polite and elegant individual in full control of his mental faculties.6 Nevertheless, these earlier self-portraits already subtly transgressed Reynolds’ model by stressing the sitter’s sensibility and imagination, indicating that Morland saw art as the spontaneous and original product of his interiority rather than the derivative output of academic knowledge.
The rules governing the London art world at the turn of the nineteenth century were indeed distant from those that Reynolds had promoted through the Royal Academy, despite the changes that the very existence of this institution had wrought both in artistic production and among artists as a professional class. The establishment of regular public art exhibitions meant an increasing pressure for painters to produce original works that could stand out from crowded walls and cater to a newly enlarged audience.7 Artists were therefore increasingly compelled to pursue expressiveness rather than imitation.8 Simultaneously, the painterly profession was distancing itself from other artistic endeavors with more practical aims, and painters were being reimagined as geniuses in the modern sense; that is, as exceptional individuals endowed with unique interior qualities that they expressed in similarly unique artworks and lifestyles.
In The Artist in His Studio with His Man Gibbs, the modern idea of the painter’s art as an expression of his life is taken to its extremes. The studio is dotted with objects alluding to the genres that had made Morland’s name in the London art world. He was especially famous for his rural subjects; finished and unfinished landscapes hang or lean on the wall behind him, and a cottage scene is placed on his easel. Various sketches are drawn on the wall over the chimney-breast, arranged in the same way as in a typical sheet from one of his drawing books.9 Even his sporting subjects are alluded to, since the artist is wearing sportsman’s boots, another pair of which is leaning on the wall beside the fireplace. The two dogs stand in for Morland’s skills as an animal painter, which is also reiterated by the farmyard painting hung next to the window, and the sketches of animals above the stove.
The most novel elements in this self-portrait are the numerous details alluding to the artist’s debauched lifestyle. Morland and Gibbs are wearing their coats, as if the artist could not afford to heat his painting room properly; a note “due 20” on the chimney-breast suggests that he is in debt, and his outfit—consisting only of riding boots and a coat worn over [End Page 153] his undergarments, a grubby knee-length shirt—speaks of poverty. While Gibbs’s cooking is fueled by kindling sticks and bellows, Morland’s painting seems to depend on less innocuous aid, as is suggested by an empty bottle of gin and a discarded glass on the floor, as well as by his rosy cheeks and slouched figure. The numerous paintings surrounding the artist indicate his renowned readiness to turn his hand to profit, and yet this self-mocking self-portrait suggests that it was insufficient to save him from poverty.
With the emergence of public exhibitions and the rapid growth in the London art world to which they were both impetus and testament, painters could no longer all adhere to the polite personality promoted by Reynolds. Ambitious artists had to fashion unique personas, which would make them distinguishable from their competitors and recognizable by the public. Scandal was increasingly employed as a mechanism for gaining publicity, and Morland’s allusions to a debauched lifestyle were an attempt at drawing attention by outraging the audience, a device he had employed before in his career.10
A widely known moralizing print by Morland, The Effects of Youthful Extravagance & Idleness (fig. 2), published in 1789, had used a bare attic interior as the proper setting for a morally reproachable lifestyle. It describes a family—poor to the point of starvation if we judge from the skinniness of the dog at the man’s foot—sharing the multipurpose space of a miserable cold garret. The moral was rammed home in a comparison with its pair, The Fruits of Early Industry and Economy, which shows a wealthy family in a refined interior, the deserved comfort of an industrious life.
Historical biographies of exceptional artists, which established them as remarkable figures with lives as worthy of historical accounts as those of poets and statesmen, were another important source of Morland’s lifestyle as it is described in this canvas. Stories from Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1568) and Arnold Houbraken’s The Great Theatre of Dutch Painters (1718–20) were increasingly translated and circulated during Morland’s time, and they offered ready-made idiosyncratic artistic types, which British artists could use to invent their own exceptional personalities.11 In particular, Morland was alluding to a form of prodigality recurrent in many Old Masters’ biographies published in English during the eighteenth century. Philipp Peter Roos (Rosa of Tivoli), for example, was likewise known for his quick manner of painting and for often being forced to work for ready cash because of his profligacy.12 Perino Del Vaga was said to have been drawn into debt by alcohol and carnal pleasures, and to have therefore accepted low prices for his art, so that he worked incessantly in exchange for little money.13 Another famous artist said to have led a bohemian life was Adriaen Brouwer, described as a [End Page 154] genius drawn into poverty by his dissolute habits.14 Like Morland, Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, known tellingly as “Il Sodoma,” was said to have kept all sorts of creatures as models in his house (for this reason named “Noah’s Ark”); an identical story to that told about Rosa of Tivoli.15
Contemporary audiences considered one type of animal particularly characteristic of Morland’s art: the pig, which appears in this canvas both pictorially—among the drawings on the fireplace wall and in the farmyard painting to the artist’s right—and through textual form in the note “Hog Lane” written on the stove. One of the artist’s early biographers would state only a few years later: “Morland was the first that ever gave any degree of consequence to that bristled animal.”16 An animal otherwise considered unworthy of being painted, the pig had become Morland’s distinctive [End Page 155] signature since early in his career, when he repeatedly presented works that featured it prominently at the most important showcases of the London art world.17 Commenting on Morland’s exhibits at the 1792 Royal Academy exhibition, The Morning Herald recognized this animal as his unique brand: “We doubt not the liberality of the public will keep pace with the returning industry of the Artist, and most sincerely hope, that he will be enabled to “bring his pigs to an excellent market.”18 It is no coincidence that Morland’s activity of painting in this canvas is mirrored by Gibbs cooking sausages: figuratively speaking, pork had filled Morland’s belly throughout his career.
For contemporary London audiences, the note “Hog Lane” on the chimney-breast would have carried another more direct association. Hog Lane was a London street between the parishes of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and St. Giles-in-the-Fields.19 An ancient highway, it had a low reputation by the eighteenth century: in 1720, John Strype described it as an area “not very well built or inhabited.”20 It was distinguished not only for its poor inhabitants, but also for the numerous pubs distributed along it, and hence, presumably, for the episodes of drunkenness that took place there.21 The street’s association with debauched behavior and pub life was ratified in art by William Hogarth, who employed it as the setting for Noon (fig. 3), one of four images from the series The Four Times of Day, published in 1738.22 By alluding to this “Hog Lane” of dubious fame, Morland was further reinforcing the narrative of a debauched and alcoholic lifestyle which informed his self-portrait.
Lifestyle manifestos set in squalid attics of this sort were a novelty for painters, but they were by no means unusual in association with contemporary literary figures. Stereotypical representations of bohemian writers had been widespread since the publication in 1737 of Hogarth’s Distressed Poet, which summarized the impoverished conditions in which urban artists were increasingly understood to work. Tellingly, Morland’s persona had been associated with that of a famous writer of dissolute habits in 1793, when advertisements promoting the sale of works from Daniel Orme’s Morland Gallery had highlighted the presence among works by Morland, of Henry Singleton’s “celebrated Picture of the Death of the Poet Chatterton” (fig. 4). 23 Shown dead in his garret, a phial of poison on the ground, Thomas Chatterton was the epitome of the artistic genius, allegedly committing suicide because of a lack of recognition by the literary establishment.
Furthermore, The Artist in His Studio with His Man Gibbs was paired with the now-lost “Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Kitchen in Leicester Square, with a distant View of St. Martin’s Church” by George Morland, which appeared as its pendant and previous lot in John Graham’s sale of the painter’s artworks on 4 May 1805, and which would have reinforced many of the canvas’s [End Page 156] meanings.24 It would have added substance to the self-portrait’s narrative of artistic fall. Morland’s father had once lived in the Leicester Square house later occupied by Reynolds, to whom he sold it in 1760, shortly before being declared bankrupt.25 The kitchen depicted in the pendant would therefore have been that of Morland’s childhood home had his father’s fortunes not failed. The elegance possessed by even the humblest room in Reynolds’s famously lavish house would likely have stood in contrast to the bare walls and rough wooden floor of Morland’s studio. Contemporary viewers of the pendant pair immediately would have recognized the morality tale, analogous to images such as The Effects of Youthful Extravagance & Idleness and The Fruits of Early Industry and Economy.
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The comparison also reinforced the idea of Morland’s creativity and power of invention, since here the artist—deprived of the inspiration offered by Reynolds’s beautiful view of St. Martin’s Church, indeed turning his back to his own garret window—is still able to produce works of art by relying on his imagination, placed as he is within urban confines, far from the rural landscapes shown in his paintings. This is in defiance of the artist’s reputation for the veracity of his rural scenes as exemplified by the Morland Gallery catalogues in his own lifetime as well as by the repeated references of his immediate biographers to the truthfulness of his work.26 This painting flies in the face of the mythology that Morland and others had constructed for him and does so deliberately to the benefit of his bohemian persona. Furthermore, the pairing of Morland’s self-portrait and of “Reynolds’s Kitchen” would have showed that even the most respected artist worked in order to sustain physical necessities. While Reynolds had made a fortune in the lucrative genre of portraiture, Morland here seems to be disinterested in making art for [End Page 158] money beyond that required to buy sausages. He is shown working intensely on paintings of the kind neglected by the artistic establishment. Despite and because of his idiosyncrasies, Morland appears here as a heroic and proud painter ready to sacrifice his wellbeing, and even his life, for his art. A noose hanging from a nail over the fireplace perhaps alludes to suicide, given a heroicizing spin by contemporary images of Chatterton’s death.
This article has explored the pivotal role assumed by the depiction of Morland’s studio in his last self-portrait for the construction of a new type of artistic identity in Britain at the turn of the nineteenth century. The objects included in Morland’s painting room speak to modern ideas of art as the expression of a painter’s personality, and they unravel the narrative of a new “art of living,” as much a careful fabrication as the canvas itself. The richness of detail and the high finish of this painting reveal the attention paid by Morland in its realization, and they make it unlikely that he painted it while suffering from the “disorder in his right arm, the effect of intemperance” attributed to him by Joseph Farington in the last years of his life. 27 Pierre Bourdieu argued that the bohemian artistic personality was an invention made by “cultural producers” through performative statements aimed at promoting the existence of a mythic social reality that they were actually still in the process of creating.28 By drawing on multiple sources, as well as by playing with socially-acceptable moral values, academic rules on decorum, and the transgression of conventional artistic identities of the kind embodied by Reynolds, Morland offered a modern parable of artistic fall, to the benefit of his own public profile. The canvas is rich in elements that mock current ideas of art and artist: the two caricature profiles of middle-aged men with large noses sketched on the studio’s wall, equivalents of the odd figures of Morland and his servant; the conventional melancholic features of the artist, here exaggerated grotesquely; the parallel between painting tools and cooking equipment, which transforms art into a gross material activity. And by way of parody, Morland gestures at the viewer, revealing himself as author of all this, his own mythology.
Francesca Bove is a PhD candidate in Art History at the University of East Anglia. Her areas of specialization include visual and material culture as well as social history of late eighteenth-century Britain. Her dissertation is entitled “George Morland: The Making of the Modern Artist.” For Bove, Morland’s work and person are both emblematic examples of the power of myth in the history of modern art. She is especially interested in the role played by Morland’s images in the fabrication of his identity as a modern artist.
1. See the examples of Rembrandt, Artist in His Studio, circa 1628, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656, Museo del Prado, Madrid.
2. “Poor George Morland,” The Morning Post, 4 May 1805.
3. For examples of painters portraying themselves in a state of melancholy—a particularly introspective and gloomy mood, either achieved naturally or through the use of substances, believed to be associated with artistic creativity—see Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, 1658, Frick Collection, New York and Pieter Codde, Portrait of a Man, Possibly a Self-Portrait of Pieter Codde, circa 1630, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam.
4. Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourse VI (1774), in Discourses on Art, ed. Robert R. Wark (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1997), 112–13.
5. A unique exception to this rule is represented by Reynolds’s first self-portrait (1747–48, National Portrait Gallery, London): see David Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds, A Complete Catalogue of His Paintings, The Subject Pictures Catalogued by Martin Postle (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 2000), 46. This is the only certain self-portrait by Reynolds; he depicts himself with his artistic tools and he emphasizes the physical instead of the intellectual aspect of his painterly practice.
6. See Morland’s self-portrait as a young boy (circa 1775–80) and his self-portrait in chalk (circa 1795), National Portrait Gallery, London.
7. David H. Solkin, ed., Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House, 1780–1836 (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 2001), 5.
8. See “Introduction,” in Kay Dian Kriz, The Idea of the English Landscape Painter, Genius as Alibi in the Early Nineteenth Century (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1997), particularly 6–7.
9. See, for example, British Museum Collection Database, “Print/Drawing Book” (registration number 1932,0311.11), www.britishmuseum.org/collection, The British Museum, accessed November 17, 2016, http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=3073575&partId=1&searchText=george+morland+drawing+book&page=1.
10. Henry Fuseli and Richard Cosway are examples of contemporary painters who similarly employed scandal to construct their reputations. See “Introduction: ‘Both Turk and Jew,’” in Martin Myrone, Henry Fuseli (London: Tate Publishing, 2001), 6–10; Stephen Lloyd, “Cosway, Richard,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed 17 November 2016, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/6383.
11. Although its full English translation was not published until 1850, many of the biographies contained in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects had already appeared in other English language texts; see Karen Junod, “The Lives of the Old Masters: Reading, Writing, and Reviewing the Renaissance,” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 30 (2008): 67–82.
12. Rosa of Tivoli’s biography was included in contemporary art historical texts, such as Rev. M. Pilkington, The Gentleman’s and Connoisseur’s Dictionary of Painters. Containing a Complete Collection, and Account, of the Most Distinguished Artists (London: T. Cadell, 1770), 523–25. On this theme, see also Rudolf and Margot Wittkower, “The Pattern of Prodigality in the Low Countries and Artists’ Conviviality,” in Born Under Saturn, The Character and Conduct of Artists: A Documented History from Antiquity to French Revolution (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1963), 215–21.
13. William Aglionby, Painting Illustrated in Three Diallogues [sic] Containing Some Choice Observations upon the Art. Together with the Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, from Cimabue, to the Time of Raphael and Michael Angelo. With an Explanation of the Difficult Terms (London: John Gain, 1685), 350–51; Cornelis De Bie, The True Effigies of the Most Eminent Painters and Other Famous Artists that Have Flourished in Europe (London, 1694), 15.
14. See De Piles, The Art of Painting, and the Lives of the Painters…To Which is Added, an Essay Towards an English-School (London: Printed for F. Nutt, 1706), 306–7.
15. On Old Masters who loved animals, see Paul Barolsky, A Brief History of the Artist from God to Picasso (University Park, Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 2010), 61–62.
16. William Collins, Memoirs of That Celebrated, Original and Eccentric Genius the Late George Morland, an Eminent Painter. Drawn from an Authentic Source of Twenty Years’ Intimate Acquaintance with Him, His Family, and Connections. To Which is Added an Appendix, Including an Account of His Most Valuable Works (London: C. Stower, 1806), 226.
17. Algernon Graves, The Royal Academy of Arts; A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and Their Work from Its Foundation in 1769 to 1904 (London: Henry Graves and Co. Ltd. and George Bell and Sons, 1905), 294–95; Algernon Graves, The Society of Artists of Great Britain, 1760–1791, The Free Society of Artists, 1761–1783; A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and Their Work from the Foundation of the Societies to 1791 (London: George Bell and Sons and Algernon Graves, 1907), 174–75.
18. “Royal Academy. Critique—No. III,” Morning Herald, 4 May 1792.
19. “Greek Street Area: Portland Estate, Crown Street, West side,” in Survey of London: Volumes 33 and 34, St Anne Soho, ed. F. H. W. Sheppard (London: London County Council, 1966), 192, available online at British History Online, accessed 17 November 2016, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols33–4/p192.
20. John Strype, A Survey of the City of Westminster, book 4, A Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, 2 vols. (London: Printed for A. Churchill, J. Knapton, et al, 1720), 2:87.
21. “Greek Street Area,” in Survey of London, 192.
22. British Museum Collection Database, “Noon/The Four Times of Day” (registration number S,2.57), www.britishmuseum.org/collection, The British Museum, accessed November 17, 2016, http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1400924&partId=1&searchText=hogarth,+noon&page=1.
23. “Celebrated Morland Gallery,” True Briton, 3 June 1793.
24. Henry J. and George Henry Robins, John Graham (4 May 1805), Getty Provenance Index® databases. J. Paul Getty Trust (Lot 0105 from Sale Catalog Br-331, indexed transcription, notes by B. Fredericksen).
25. I found the first occurrence of this story—whose reliability is not confirmed—in George Dawe, The Life of George Morland, with an Introduction and Notes by J. J. Foster (London: Dickinsons, 1904), 1. The first edition of this book was published in 1807, but the story could have circulated in the art world since much earlier. Henry Robert Morland was declared bankrupt in January 1762 and later had to accept charity from the Society of Artists and the Royal Academy. See W. C. Monkhouse, rev., Kate Retford, “Morland, Henry Robert,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed 17 November 2016, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/19281; see also Joseph Farington, 15 June 1795, 10 July 1795, 28 July 1795, 8 July 1796, and 9 July 1796, in The Diary of Joseph Farington, ed. Kenneth Garlick, Angus Macintyre, and Kathryn Cave, 17 vols. (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1978–84), 2:353, 364, 371, 597, 599.
26. See introductions to the Morland Gallery catalogues: A. T. P., “Address,” in A Catalogue of a Superb Selection of Paintings, Exhibiting by Mess. Orme & Co. at the Morland Gallery (London, 1793), 1–2, Catalogues Collection, 200.BM, National Art Library, London; “Morland’s Pictures, Introduction,” in A Descriptive Catalogue of Thirty-six Pictures, Painted by George Morland (London: 1793), 1–3, Special Collections 95.G.38, National Art Library, London. See Morland’s early biographies: Collins, Memoirs of … George Morland; Francis W. Blagdon, Authentic Memoirs of the Late George Morland, with Remarks on His Abilities and Progress as an Artist: in Which are Interspersed a Variety of Anecdotes Never Before Published; Together with a Fac-simile of His Writing, Specimens of His Hieroglyphical Sketches, &c. &c. The Whole Collected from Numerous Manuscript Communications (London: Barnard and Sultzer, 1806); John Hassell, Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Morland; with Critical and Descriptive Observations on the Whole of His Works Hitherto Before the Public (London: Albion Press, 1806); Dawe, The Life of George Morland.
27. Farington, 26 March 1797, in The Diary of Joseph Farington, 3:806.
28. Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art, Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, transl. Susan Emanuel (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996), 56.