April 4 1812: Haydon begins Judgment of Solomon

On April 4 1812, Benjamin Robert Haydon, began his painting the "Judgment of Solomon" which he was to finished in 1814. Haydon was an English painter who had a very high regard for his own abilities. He wanted to be known as England's greatest historical painter. Hexhibited at the Royal Academy before quarrelling with its members. Part of the motivation for his new painting was to impress the Royal Academy and to deal with the financial problems that he would continue until his death. Debts and artistic disappointments led him in 1846, at the age of 61, to commit suicide first by shooting himself and then slitting his throat.  

Haydon had a volatile personality who attracted many detractors but also some very ardent supporters. He led a stormy life that he described with a great deal of honesty in his autobiography. Haydon found a great admirer in the person of John Keats who wrote several poems about Haydon. After a visit, Keats was moved to write on November 20, 1816, to Haydon a letter that included a poem where Haydon is joined in a tribute to Wordsworth and Leigh Hunt. The original of his letter can be found here and it reads:
"Last evening wrought me up, and I cannot forbear sending you the following:-
Great spirits now on earth are sojourning:
He of the cloud, the cataract, the lake,
Who on Helvellyn's summit, wide awake,
Catches his freshness from Archangel's wing:
He of the rose, the violet, the spring,
The social smile, the chain for Freedom's sake,
And lo! whose steadfastness would never take
A meaner sound than Raphael's whispering.
And other spirits there are standing apart
Upon the forehead of the age to come;
These, these will give the world another heart,
And other pulses. Hear ye not the hum
Of mighty workings in some distant mart?
Listen awhile, ye nations, and be dumb."
On April 4, 1812, Haydon is beginning his painting. The day before he had received his canvas with the "grand" size of 12 feet 10 inches by 10 feet 10 inches. Haydon explains why he chose the subject of the painting in his autobiography. When told that Rubens and Raphael have also painted the judgment of Solomon. Haydon in his honest and grandiose manner responds "So much the better. I'll tell the story better."  

I have reproduced some of extracts below:
As I WAS one day walking down the Haymarket in the greatest anxiety about a debt I could not pay, I met my early and dear friend Prince Hoare; he admitted the truth of all I had written, but said: 'They will deny your talents and deprive you of employment.' But,' said I, 'if I produce a work of such merit as cannot be denied, the public will carry me through." "They know nothing of Art," said he.  "That I deny," said I; "the merest shoeblack will understand Ananias." He shook his head. 
"What are you going to paint?" "Solomon's judgment.""Rubens and Raffaele have both tried it." "So much the better," I said; "I'll tell the story better." He smiled, and putting his hand on my shoulder this kind friend said : "How are you to live ?' "Leave that to me." "Who is to pay your rent?" "Leave that to me," I said again. "Well," said Mr. Hoare, "I see you are ready with a reply. You will never sell it." "I trust in God," said I.  He shook hands as if I was tête montée, and saying, "If you are arrested send for me," walked away.

In a short time I began to turn again to my glorious art; but the thoughts of my position often distracted me and rendered me incapable of painting. Often during this insanity, when I have sat still and have not spoken for hours, artists have said : "Look at him, poor fellow, he is thinking of the Academy."

These abstractions grew less and less; in a few weeks I began my work and soon was lost to all remembrances that had no connection with my pursuit.

 My Journal thus records my progress:

April 3rd--My canvas came home for Solomon, 12 feet 10 inches, by 10 feet 10 inches a grand size. God in heaven grant me strength of body and vigour of mind to cover it with excellence. Amen on my knees.

4th-- Began my picture perspectived the greater part of the day felt a sort of check in imagination at the difficulties I saw coming, but, thank God ! instantly a blaze of enthusiastic perseverance burst into my brain, gave me a thorough contempt for my timidity and set me at rest.

6th-- Drew in my figures. Ascertained the perspective proportions of all the heads; squared in my pavement ; oiled in my ground. Thus I have advanced my picture, by God's blessing, more methodically than any I have yet done. Searched in the evening Kings ii for hints for architecture. My hand is more certain than it was from the schooling it has had in wading through the drudgery of Macbeth and Dentatus.

Let this not diminish but increase my exertions. Let them, God! end only with my existence.

I must endeavour to distinguish the effect of Solomon's order on different temperaments, some doubting if it be in earnest, others really alarmed and wondering.

7th.-- Advanced my picture.

8th. Went to the London Institution to search for manners of Israelites.

I wish to express in Solomon a fine youthful king of Israel,with delicate hands, clothed in gold, with a sceptre and a crimson robe, his face youthful dignity commingled with wisdom,

The mother should be as if she had burst out of her usual modesty; the moment she recollected herself she would blush.

9th.-- Breakfasted with Wilkie. Walked about the Regent's Park. Dined with Soane. So has passed the present day, without profit, and with bitter remorse of conscience.
10th.-- Worked hard, advanced my picture, got in the architecture and part of the background, as well as Solomon.

I paint with more certainty than I did. Got all in light and thin.

11th.-- Worked vigorously; advanced my picture. Got in the two mothers. At the Opera in the evening. The most delightful ballet I ever saw.
12th.--At church ; an idle day.

          13th.-- Idle..... [to continue] 

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