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