Art in Fiction video: Oliver Goldsmith – The Vicar of Wakefield, 1766

The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith, written in 1761 and 1762, and published in 1766, became one of the most widely read books in English literature. The novel follows the fortunes and misfortunes of a Yorkshire vicar, Dr. Primrose, and his family.

Chapter 16. The family use art, which is opposed by still greater.

The narrative provides an unparalleled description of the commission of a family group portrait by an itinerant painter plying the artist’s trade in the English provinces in the mid 18th century. The excitement and discussion of the costume and composition is enjoyed by the whole village. The social cachet and class distinctions, or minor snobbery, of having a portrait painted are keenly understood. The Vicar of Wakefield, Dr Primrose, adopts a theological intellectual pose, while his wife Deborah and their six children choose to be depicted as Venus, cupids, a shepherdess and an Amazon. The local Squire Thornhill, was included as Alexander the Great. The painter, or travelling limner, who ‘took likenesses for fifteen shillings a head’ is not considered important enough to be named.

Chapter 20. The history of a philosophic vagabond, pursuing novelty, but losing content.

The young Vicar of Wakefield, Dr Primrose, is instructed in the tricks of the art trade in Paris, and teacher on the Grand Tour of France and Italy. The narrative suggests that there was little confidence in the connoisseurship of the art dealer or in the role of guide on the Grand Tour.