Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Peter Walmsley




Sir Joshua Reynolds's fifteen Discourses on Art seem to be the ultimate vindication of the English painter's right to autonomy - to the independence of a national tradition divorced from the tenets of literary criticism. However, this vindication is merely symbolic, for the fundamental paradox of writing about painting was exacerbated by the eighteenth-century insistence on associating painting with mechanism and naive mimeticism. By arguing for painting's inclusion in the liberal arts, Reynolds engendered an alternative form of iconoclasm; a distrust of images that failed to conform to the high-discursive art prescribed by the Academy. Although painting's affinity with the literary was evident in even the non-academic narrative cycles of William Hogarth, the official emphasis on poetic precedent signalled a difficult voyage on the road to interart equality. Modern scholarship has tended to forego in-depth discussions of the rivalry between word and image, focusing instead on the changing philosophical context in which Reynolds produced the Discourses.

This thesis will attempt to add another dimension to earlier analyses by looking at this underlying tension within the context of both the neoclassicism characteristic of the first half of the eighteenth century, and the emerging Romanticism of later years. The neoclassical discourse of the sister arts, with its emphasis on w pictura poesis, prompted painters such as Jonathan Richardson to view painting as a type of writing subject to the same principles as language proper. But, if Edmund Burke and G.E. Lessing promise to restore order by stressing the intrinsic differences between the arts, both theorists prefer the expressive potential of language, which remained privileged as a more advanced form of communication.

Ultimately, the Discourses support the aesthetic milieu from which Lessing's and Burke's prose evolved, and which heralded the final triumph of word over image.

McMaster University Library

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