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Creator:
Sir David Wilkie, 1785–1841, British
Title:

Grace Before Meat

Date:
1839
Medium:
Watercolor with brown and red ink over graphite on medium, slightly textured, cream wove paper
Dimensions:
Sheet: 8 1/4 x 10 1/8 inches (21 x 25.7 cm)
Inscription(s)/Marks/Lettering:

Signed and dated in brown ink, lower left: "David Wilkie | ft 1839"

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
B1977.14.4299
Classification:
Drawings & Watercolors
Collection:
Prints and Drawings
Subject Terms:
children | dinner | dog (animal) | eating | family | father | food | genre subject | infant | interior | men | mother | prayer | shawl | tablecloth | women
Access:
View by request in the Study Room [Request]
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Link:
https://collections.britishart.yale.edu/catalog/tms:14143
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In 1836 David Wilkie was commissioned by Glendy Burke of New Orleans to produce an oil painting depicting a family saying grace. Wilkie was a painstaking planner, working through every detail of his paintings with careful preparatory drawings. Often he would use watercolor to block in the forms of objects and to define the spatial relationships between them. By using his pigments in an extremely saturated state, the brilliant blues and reds gave Wilkie a visual shorthand for the chromatic richness that was so admired in his final canvases.

Gallery label for Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Yale Center for British Art, 2008-06-09 - 2008-08-17)
When David Wilkie arrived in London from Scotland in 1805, his manner of drawing both shocked and impressed fellow students at the Royal Academy Schools. He had received no orthodox academic training until then, and the discipline of making laborious studies in pencil and chalk after plaster casts was unknown to him. Instead, his style was bold and sketchy. His contemporary Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846) was disapproving, noting that "Wilkie drew at the Academy with spirit, it was in a style of smartness, so full of what are called spirited touches that it could not be recommended for imitation." He retained this sketchy manner of drawing throughout his career, despite becoming an accomplished draftsman in the more conventional academic mold. When he was in Paris in 1821 copying paintings in the Louvre, he began to add touches of watercolor to his sketches in order to capture general effects of color. Grace before Meat is an example of this technique used in a working drawing for the oil painting of the same name (fig. 9), which was commissioned from Wilkie by Glendy Burke of New Orleans in 1836. The com. mission was probably the result of Burke having seen a painting on the same theme (now Belvoir Castle, Grantham, Leicestershire) by the Dutch genre painter Jan Steen (1626-1679) at the British Institution exhibition the previous year. Ever since Wilkie had shown his Village Politicians (private collection) at the Royal Academy in 1806, he had been lauded as a modern rival of those seventeenth century Dutch artists like Steen whose small cabinet pictures were so admired by connoisseurs. Wilkie tended to work laboriously, producing countless studies before tackling a major oil painting in earnest. Several other preparatory drawings exploring details from Grace before Meat survive, as well as a full oil sketch. Despite such methodical labor, however, the lesson Wilkie learned from copying in watercolor at the Louvre was that, with only a few washes, the general composition and color of a painting could be mapped quickly, without the need for detailed drawing. This refinement on his early spirited drawing style has been used here to block in the forms of objects, such as the table, as well as to define the spatial relationships between them through laying in dark background washes of brown ink. Using his pigments of brilliant blues and reds in an extremely saturated state gave Wilkie a visual shorthand for the chromatic richness that was so admired in his final canvases. Charles Lamb had published an essay called "Grace before Meat" in 1823 and acknowledged that "the benediction before eating has its beauty at a poor table, or at a simple and unprovocative repast for children. It is here that the grace becomes exceedingly graceful." But he added that "practically I own that (before meat especially) they seem to involve something awkward and unseasonable." To Lamb, the blend of piety and expectant gluttony was unseemly or, as he put it, "the heats of epicurism put out the gentle flame of devotion." The subject itself was close to Wilkie's own heart. Like the family depicted. Wilkie was a Scottish Calvinist who hoped to recon cile painting with his religion. Lamb's sense of impropriety is avoided by showing the family - neither poverty-stricken nor excessively affluent - soberly preparing to begin the meal. As the verses Wilkie used when exhibiting the painting affirm, he shows "a lowly cot[tage]" and its "simple owner" raising his bonnet to request "a blessing on the humble meal." Through simple scenes of domestic piety such as this, Wilkie hoped to find a Protestant equivalent to the Catholic devotional art that had so impressed him on the Continent. He once wrote to a friend praising painting's ability to "represent the mysteries of a spiritual revelation" through its "undefinable powers over colour and form, over light and darkness" - those very qualities to the fore in this watercolor. "The art of painting seems made for the service of Christianity," he declared, "would that the Catholics were not the only sect who have seen its advantages."

Matthew Hargraves

Hargraves, Matthew, and Scott Wilcox. Great British Watercolors: from the Paul Mellon collection. New Haven: Yale Center for British Art, 2008, pp. 140-142, no. 61

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Yale Center for British Art, 2008-06-09 - 2008-08-17) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (The State Hermitage Museum, 2007-10-23 - 2008-01-13) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2007-07-11 - 2007-09-30) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

David Wilkie : Genre Painter (Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2002-09-11 - 2002-12-01) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Catalogue of the art treasures of the United Kingdom : collected at Manchester in 1857., Bradbury and Evans, London, p. 184, no. 185, N5056 .M35 M25 1857 (YCBA) Also available in Hathitrust [YCBA]

Nicholas Tromans, David Wilkie: A Painter of Everyday Life, London: Dulwich Picture Gallery, p. 145, no. 63, NJ18. W665 776 2002 (LC) OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Yale Center for British Art, Great British watercolors : from the Paul Mellon Collection, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2007, pp. 140-42, no. 61, ND1928 .Y35 2007 (LC)+ Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]


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