This rare and impressive drawing is an unusually complete compositional study made by James Barry in preparation for one of his most significant historical compositions, The Education of Achilles now in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art. James Barry travelled to Italy in 1766 with the single aim, as he wrote to his friend and patron Edmund Burke, of: ‘forming myself for a history painter.’ In practice this meant studying the greatest sculptures of antiquity and Italian art to develop a visual language which could be deployed in historical compositions of his own. Barry designed a number of important history paintings whilst in Italy including The Education of Achilles. Whilst the painting, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy shortly after Barry’s return to Britain in 1772, seems likely to have been painted in London, the present important, previously unpublished, preparatory drawing was probably made in Italy. In its combination of visual and literary sources, it represents an extraordinary distillation of Barry’s self-conscious fashioning as a ‘history painter’.
The drawing is a fluid and confident line study depicting his initial idea for the Yale picture, which illustrates the story of the young Achilles being instructed by the centaur Chiron. Chiron was renowned for his goodness and wisdom and was the teacher of a number of celebrated heroes in the classical world. Here he instructs the youthful Achilles in the use of weapons, in the arts, symbolized by the lyre, and in mathematics, represented in the painting by a Eucledian diagram traced on the ground at the end of Achilles’ robe. As William Pressly has pointed out, in spirit Barry’s picture is more closely attuned to the tragic characterisation of the mature Achilles found in Homer’s Iliad rather than to the less gloomy accounts of his early education found in Pindar’s Third Nemean Ode, Statius’ Achilleid, and Philostratus the Elder’s Imagines. The present drawing offers important evidence of Barry’s initial idea and significantly the sources of his inspiration for the composition.
Writing to Burke in April 1769 Barry noted:
‘The object of my studies is rather contracting itself every day, and concentrating upon a few principal things, compositions of one, or a few figures, three or four at most, turning upon some particular of beauty, distress, or some other simple obvious thing, like what is to be seen in the antique groups, or like what is told of the Greek painters, which exactly corresponds with what we find in the statues that remain of them.’
Barry’s contraction of ideas, his focus on ‘compositions of one, or a few figures’ and reliance on the works of ‘Greek painters’, perfectly describes his design for The Education of Achilles. Barry knew a celebrated ancient painting of the same subject-matter at Herculaneum, although he was actually critical of the fresco in a letter to Burke. As William Pressly has pointed out Barry’s immediate influence may have been a work by Pompeo Batoni although since this work was completed in the 1740s and housed in Lucca it seems more likely that Barry was looking at the works of a more conventionally celebrated master. The figure of Achilles, seen almost in profile, is closely modeled on the figure of Apollo from the fresco of Apollo and Marsyas by Raphael painted on the ceiling of the Stanza della Segnatura. For Barry, Raphael was the ultimate model, and in the small panels on the ceiling of the Stanza della Segnatura he depicted: ‘a few figures…turning upon some particular of beauty, distress or some obvious thing.’ For the figure of Chiron Barry turned to the two great sculptures in the Vatican collection: the Laocoön and Belvedere Torso, both believed in the eighteenth century to be the works of Greek sculptors.
Neither a prolific nor a particularly confident draughtsman, Barry made two preparatory studies for The Education of Achilles: the present sheet and a slight drawing now in the Ashmolean Museum.
This underlines the importance of the composition to Barry’s development as a ‘history painter’. The present sheet is the most fully developed and ambitious of the two studies and is strikingly different from the finished painting, giving important insight into the gestation of the project. Barry has carefully delineated the musculature of Chiron’s chest emphasizing its debt to the Belvedere Torso, whilst the figure of Achilles appears more mature and closer to Raphael’s Apollo than the diminutive youth in the finished work. In the final painting Barry sets the figures in a landscape diffusing the intensity and sculptural aspect of the group, perhaps suggesting a shift of emphasis that took place between Rome and London. Having two studies for the painting is rare and extremely revealing, underlining its importance to his future work.
Barry had heard news of the newly founded Royal Academy from amongst others its first President, Sir Joshua Reynolds, on his arrival in Rome. He must therefore have been alive to the importance of a new public forum for the exhibition of historical works in London and begun to prepare works specifically for this market and The Education of Achilles was amongst his earliest exhibits, being shown at the Academy in 1772. This sheet is therefore an important record of an early historical design by Barry made in preparation for perhaps the most significant painting of his early career.
- Edward Fryer, The Works of James Barry, London, 1809, I., pp.77-82.
- This sheet, despite being accessible in the collection of the academic Ralph Holland, was not included in any catalogue of Barry’s drawings: Robert Wark, James Barry, unpublished PhD thesis, Harvard University, 1952; David Solkin, The Drawings of James Barry, unpublished MA thesis, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, 1974; William Pressly, The Life and Art of James Barry, New Haven and London, 1981.
- William Pressly, The Life and Art of James Barry, New Haven and London, 1981, cat. no.4.
- Edward Fryer, The Works of James Barry, London, 1809, I., pp.158-64.
- Edward Fryer, The Works of James Barry, London, 1809, I., pp. 108-17.
- William Pressly, The Life and Art of James Barry, New Haven and London, 1981, pp.35-6.
- William Pressly, The Life and Art of James Barry, New Haven and London, 1981, cat. no.3, p.245.