Sir Joshua Reynolds (16 July 1723 – 23 February 1792) was an influential 18th-century English painter, specialising in portraits and promoting the “Grand Style” in painting which depended on idealization of the imperfect. He was one of the founders and first President of the Royal Academy. King George III appreciated his merits and knighted him in 1769.
Reynolds was born in Plympton, Devon, on 16 July 1723. As one of ten (maybe eleven) children and the son of the village school-master, Reynolds was restricted to a formal education provided by his father. He exhibited a natural curiosity and, as a boy, came under the influence of Zachariah Mudge, whose Platonistic philosophy stayed with him all his life. Reynolds made extracts into his commonplace book from Theophrastus, Plutarch, Seneca, Marcus Antonius, Ovid, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, John Dryden, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Aphra Behn and passages on art theory by Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Alphonse Du Fresnoy, and André Félibien.
The work that came to have the most influential impact on Reynolds was Jonathan Richardson’s An Essay on the Theory of Painting (1715). Reynolds’ annotated copy was lost for nearly two hundred years when it appeared in a Cambridge bookshop, inscribed with the signature ‘J. Reynolds Pictor’.
Showing an early interest in art, Reynolds was apprenticed in 1740 to the fashionable portrait painter Thomas Hudson, with whom he remained until 1743. In 1749, Reynolds became friend with Augustus Keppel, a naval officer, and they both sailed on the Centurion to the Mediterranean. Whilst on board, Reynolds wrote later, “I had the use of his cabin and his study of books, as if they had been my own”.
From 1749 to 1752, he spent over two years in Italy, where he studied the Old Masters and acquired a taste for the “Grand Style”. Unfortunately, whilst in Rome, Reynolds suffered a severe cold which left him partially deaf, and, as a result, he began to carry a small ear trumpet with which he is often pictured. From 1753 until the end of his life, he lived in London, his talents gaining recognition soon after his arrival in France.
Reynolds worked long hours in his studio, rarely taking a holiday. He was both gregarious and keenly intellectual, with a great number of friends from London’s intelligentsia, numbered amongst whom were Dr Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, Giuseppe Baretti, Henry Thrale, David Garrick and fellow artist Angelica Kauffmann. Johnson said in 1778: “Reynolds is too much under Fox and Burke at present. He is under the Fox star and the Irish constellation [meaning Burke]. He is always under some planet”.
Because of his popularity as a portrait painter, Reynolds enjoyed constant interaction with the wealthy and famous men and women of the day, and it was he who first brought together the famous figures of “The” Club. By 1761 Reynolds could command a fee of 80 Guineas for a full-length portrait (Mr Fane); in 1764 he was paid 100 Guineas for a portrait of Lord Burghersh.
With his rival Thomas Gainsborough, Reynolds was the dominant English portraitist of ‘the Age of Johnson’. It is said that in his long life he painted as many as three thousand portraits. Although not principally known for his landscapes, Reynolds did paint in this genre. He had an excellent vantage from his house on Richmond Hill, and painted the view in about 1780.
In the Battle of Ushant with the French in 1778, Lord Keppel commanded the Channel Fleet and the outcome resulted in no clear winner; Keppel ordered to renew the attack and this was obeyed except by Sir Hugh Palliser, who commanded the rear, and the French escaped bombardment. A dispute between Keppel and Palliser arose and Palliser brought charges of misconduct and neglect of duty against Keppel and the Admiralty decided to court-martial him. On 11 February 1779 Keppel was acquitted of all charges and became a national hero. One of Keppel’s lawyers commissioned Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland to paint a portrait of Keppel but Keppel redirected it to Reynolds. Reynolds alluded to Keppel’s trial in the painting by having him have his hand on his sword, reflecting the presiding officer’s words at the court-martial: “In delivering to you your sword, I am to congratulate you on its being restored to you with so much honour”.
On 10 August 1784 Allan Ramsay died and the office of Principal Painter in Ordinary to the King therefore became vacant. Gainsborough felt that he had a good chance of securing it but Reynolds felt that he deserved it and threatened to resign the presidency of the Royal Academy if he did not receive it. Reynolds noted in his pocket book: “Sept. 1, 2½, to attend at the Lord Chancellor’s Office to be sworn in painter to the King”.
However this did not make Reynolds happy, as he wrote to Boswell: “If I had known what a shabby miserable place it is, I would not have asked for it; besides as things have turned out I think a certain person is not worth speaking to, nor speaking of”, presumably meaning the King. Reynolds wrote to Jonathan Shipley, Bishop of St Asaph, a few weeks later: “Your Lordship congratulation on my succeeding Mr. Ramsay I take very kindly but it is a most miserable office, it is reduced from two hundred to thirty-eight pounds per annum, the Kings Rat catcher I believe is a better place, and I am to be paid only a fourth part of what I have from other people, so that the Portraits of their Majesties are not likely to be better done now, than they used to be, I should be ruined if I was to paint them myself”.
In 1789 he lost the sight of his left eye, which finally forced him into retirement. In 1791 James Boswell dedicated his Life of Samuel Johnson to Reynolds. Reynolds agreed with Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and, writing in early 1791, expressed his belief that the ancien régime of France had fallen due to spending too much time tending
to the splendor of the foliage, to the neglect of the stirring the earth about the roots. They cultivated only those arts which could add splendor to the nation, to the neglect of those which supported it – They neglected Trade & substantial Manufacture…but does it follow that a total revolution is necessary that because we have given ourselves up too much to the ornaments of life, we will now have none at all”.
Sir Joshua Reynolds was on very many accounts one of the most memorable men of his Time. He was the first Englishman who added the praise of the elegant Arts to the other Glories of his Country. In Taste, in grace, in facility, in happy invention, and in the richness and Harmony of colouring, he was equal to the great masters of the renowned Ages. In Portrait he went beyond them; for he communicated to that description of the art, in which English artists are the most engaged a variety, a Fancy, and a dignity derived from the higher Branches, which even those who professed them a superior manner, did not always preserve when they delineated individual nature. His Portraits remind the Spectator of the Invention of History, and the amenity of Landscape. In painting portraits he appeared not to be raised upon that platform; but to descend to it from an higher sphere. his paintings illustrate his Lessons—and his Lessons seem to be derived from his Paintings.
He possessed the Theory as perfectly as the Practice of his Art. To be such a painter, he was a profound and penetrating Philosopher.
In full affluence of foreign and domestic Fame, admired by the expert in art, and by the learned in Science, courted by the great, caressed by Sovereign powers, and celebrated by distinguished Poets, his Native humility, modesty and Candour never forsook him, even on surprise or provocation, nor was the least degree of arrogance or assumption visible to the most scrutinizing eye, in any part of his Conduct or discourse.
His talents of every kind powerful from Nature, and not meanly cultivated by Letters, his social Virtues in all the relations, and all the habitualness of Life rendered him the centre of a very great and unparalleled Variety of agreeable Societies, which will be dissipated by his Death. He had too much merit not to excite some Jealously; too much innocence to provoke any Enmity. The loss of no man of his Time can be felt with more sincere, general, and unmixed Sorrow.
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