WILLIAM MASON, “PREFACE TO THE ART OF PAINTING” (1783)

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William Mason (1725-1797) is one of the many 18th century clergymen who were also men of letters. He was interested in music and in the aesthetics of landscape painting. As a poet he wrote his most famous text on the art of gardens: The English Garden (4 volumes, 1772-1781), a didactic poem inspired by the Georgics. Mason learned Latin at the Hull Grammar School and painted as an amateur, a practice which probably led him to translate Charles-Alphonse Dufresnoy’s Latin poem, De Arte Graphica. Dufresnoy’s ideas are not original in that they mostly repeat the theories on art developed during the Italian Renaissance. His poem however achieved posterity through its different translations, both in French and English. Among its English translators feature most notably John Dryden and Charles Jervas in collaboration with Alexander Pope.

Mason’s preface offers insights both on translation and on the translator’s task. The necessity of undertaking the translation of Dufresnoy’s poem is based on the usefulness of his text which works as compendium on the essential principles of the art of painting, a sort of manual for the painter and amateur. The difficulty of the translator’s task is emphasized through allusion to the painstaking line-by-line translation. Mason also mentions the time span between the beginning and the end of his work as a way of underlining the merits of letting the text lie. By mentioning previous translations, he also poses the question of the choice of verse or prose in the translation of poetry. Finally he maintains that translation is the business of men of letters and professionals of language but that it cannot be done without the contribution of an expert on the subject (Reynold in his case) for the footnotes.

 

The poem of M. Du Fresnoy, when considered as a Treatise on Painting, may unquestionably claim the merit of giving the leading Principles of the Art with more precision, conciseness, and accuracy, than any work of the kind that has either preceded or followed it; yet as it was published about the middle of the last century, many of the precepts it contains have been to frequently repeated by later writers, that they have lost the air of novelty, and will, consequently, now be held common; some of them too may, perhaps, not be so generally true as to claim the authority of absolute rules. Yet the reader of taste will always be pleased to see a Frenchman holding out to his countrymen the Study of Nature, and the chaste Models of Antiquity, when (if we except Le Sueur and Nicolo Poussin, who were Fresnoy’s contemporaries) so few Painters of that nation have regarded either of these architypes. The modern Artist also will be proud to emulate that simplicity of style, which this work has for more than a century recommended, and which, having only very lately got the better of fluttering drapery and theatrical attitude, is become one of the principal tests of Picturesque excellence.

But if the Text may have lost somewhat of its original merit, the Notes of Mr. Du Piles, which have hitherto accompanied it, have lost much more. Indeed it may be doubted whether they ever had merit in any considerable degree. Certain it is that they contain such a parade of common-place quotation, with so small a degree of illustrative science, that I have thought proper to expel them from this edition, in order to make room for their betters.

As to the poetical powers of my Author, I do not suppose that these alone would ever have given him a place in the numerous libraries which he now holds; and I have, therefore, often wondered that Mr. De Voltaire, when he gave an account of the authors who appeared in the age of Louis XIV should dismiss Fresnoy, with saying, in his decisive manner, that “his Poem has succeeded with such persons as could bear to read Latin Verse, not of the Augustan Age1. This is the criticism of a mere Poet. No body, I should suppose, ever read Fresnoy to admire, or even criticise his versification, but either to be instructed by him as a Painter, or improve as a Virtuoso.

It was this latter motive only, I confess, that led me to attempt the following translation; which was begun in very early youth; with the double view of implanting in my own memory the principles of a favourite art, and of acquiring a habit of versification, for which purpose the close and condensed stile of the original seemed peculiarly calculated, especially when considered as a sort of school exercise. However the task proved difficult, that when I had gone through a part of it I remitted of my diligence, and proceeded at such separate intervals, that I had passed many posterior productions thro’ the press before this was brought to any conclusion in manuscript; and, after it was so, it lay long neglected, and would certainly have never been made public, had not Sir Joshua Reynolds requested a sight of it, and made an obliging offer of illustrating it by a series of his own notes. This prompted me to revise it with all possible accuracy; and as I had preserved the strictures which my late excellent friend Mr. Gray had made many years before on the version, as it then stood, I attended to each of them in their order with that deference which every criticism of his must demand. Besides this, as much more time was now elapsed since I had myself perused the copy, my own eye was become more open to its defects. I found the rule which my Author had given to his Painter full of useful to a Writer,

            (Ast ubi consilium deerit sapientis amici

            Id tempus dabit, atque mora intermissa labori.)

And I may say, with truth, that having become from this circumstance, as impartial, if not as fastidious, to my own work, as any other critique could possibly have been, I hardly left a single line in it without giving it, what I thought, an emendation. It is not, therefore, as a juvenile work that I now present it to the public, but as one which I have improved to the utmost of my mature abilities, in order to make it more worthy its Annotator.

In the preceding Epistle I have obviated, I hope, every suspicion of arrogance in attempting this work after Mr. Dryden. The single consideration that his Version was in Prose were in itself sufficient; because, as Mr. Pope has justly observed, Verse and even Rhyme is the best mode of conveying preceptive truths, “as in this way they are more shortly expressed, and more easily retained2.” Still less need I make an apology for undertaking it after Mr. Wills, who, in the year 1754, published a Translation of it in Metre without Rhyme3

.

This Gentleman, a Painter by profession, assumed for his motto,

Tractant Fabrilia Fabri;

but however adroit he might be in handling the tools of his own art, candour must own that the tools of a Poet and a Translator were beyond his management; attempting also a talk absolutely impossible, that of expressing the sense of his Author in an equal number of lines, he produced a version which (if it was ever read through by any person except myself) is now totally forgotten. Nevertheless I must do him the justice to own that he understood the original text; that he detected some errors in Mr. Dryden’s Translation, which had escaped Mr. Jervas (afflicted, as it is said, by his friend Mr. pope) in that corrected Edition which Mr. Graham inscribed to the Earl of Burlington; and that I have myself sometimes profited by his labours. It is also from his Edition that I reprint the following Life of the Author, which was drawn up from Felibien and other Biographers by the late Dr. Birch, who, with his usual industry, has collected all they have said on Fresnoy’s subject.

 

  1. Du Frenoi (Charles) né à Paris 1611, peintre & poète. Son poème de la peinture a réussi auprès de ceux qui peuvent lire d’autres vers latins que ceux du siècle d’Auguste. Siècle de Louis XIV. Tom. I. []
  2. See his Advertisement before the Essay on Man. []
  3. I call it so rather that Blank Verse, because it was devoid of all harmony of numbers. The beginning. Which I shall here insert, is a sufficient proof of the truth of this assertion.

    As Painting, Poesy, so similar

    To Poesy be Painting; emulous

    Alike, each to her sister doth refer,

    Alternate change the office and the name;

    Mute verse is this, that speaking picture call’d.

    From this little specimen the reader will easily form a judgement of the whole. []


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