What is striking, even ironic, is that just as Hazlitt was criticizing him in print for his unimaginative predictability, with Distraining for Rent at the Academy Wilkie was demonstrating an entirely unexpected transformation.
By one account the Distraining was "a work far surpassing any of his former productions" (Press Cuttings, from English Newspapers 918, April 2, 1815).
Recalling The Rake's Progress, his extended tale of a young man's journey from wealth to debauchery and destitution, it was thought the Distraining might likewise become a scene in an unfolding saga of gullibility, impoverishment and the lessons to be learned from imprudence.
Nevertheless, despite its highly charged reception, for 600 [pounds sterling] the Distraining was purchased directly from the Academy by the British Institution, who displayed it in the next year in their own rooms.
All associations with Hogarth aside, the debacle of the Distraining, its mixed, even perplexing reception and its resultant removal from public sight, even led Raimbach to acknowledge a decline in Wilkie's "extreme popularity." But he also offered a means to stem this regression.
Every thing in his pictures has life and motion in it." For Wilkie the remarks may have confirmed the suitability of his pursuing a theme, which while it touched on economic life did nevertheless manage to avoid the controversies that had previously surrounded the Distraining. As for his specifically taking up Reading a Will what also becomes clear is the importance of Hazlitt's reviving the Hogarthian challenge and with it the lingering question of Wilkie as his inheritor.
While avoiding Hogarth's broad comedy, as well as the offensive gloominess of the Distraining, and extending beyond a mere display of his technical skills in rendering detail, here was a fateful moralizing theme that touched on economic issues, social class and offered a wide range of reactive emotions, humor included.
Their most immediate introduction to his work, as already noted, came from engravings and with local variations there followed painted versions of such subjects as Dorfpolitickers, Der blinde Geiger, and with the availability of Raimbach's 1828 Distraining print, Die Pfanderung.
Writing June 6, 1815, to Samuel Dobree, who had previously had The Letter of Introduction, he notes that the Distraining, the only work he had recently been engaged upon, would be an unsuitable acquisition, "being neither a small nor a humorous subject"; Life of Wilkie 1: 437.