Reynolds, Joshua (1723–1792)

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REYNOLDS, JOSHUA (17231792), English portrait painter and theorist. Sir Joshua Reynolds's critical role in the development of British art from the eighteenth century lay both in his painting practice and his position as the first president of the Royal Academy. As the leading painter of aristocratic and intellectual society in the second half of the eighteenth century, Reynolds looked to classical and Old Master models to endow his "great style" portraits and his own reputation with art historical seriousness. He articulated his method for raising the social status of the artist in theoretical form with the fifteen lectures (known as the Discourses on Art ) he delivered between 1769 and 1790 to the students and members of the Royal Academy that he helped found in 1768.

Born in Plympton, where his father, an Oxford fellow, was master of the local grammar school, Reynolds began his London career as an apprentice to fellow Devonshire-born portrait painter Thomas Hudson in 1740. After three years (although he had been indentured for four), Reynolds began his independent practice in London and Devonshire. To complete his artistic education, he sailed with his friend Commodore Augustus Keppel to Italy, where he studied in Rome between April 1750 and April 1752.

On his return to London at the end of 1752, Reynolds set up his studio near Covent Garden, the neighborhood then popular with artists. His second portrait of Keppel (c. 17531754; National Maritime Museum, London) in the pose of the Greek sculpture Apollo Belvedere demonstrates Reynolds's study of the antique statues in Rome, as well as the heroic figures of Michelangelo. As his future student James Northcote related, Reynolds's success was consolidated with his commissions of "several ladies of high quality, whose portraits the polite world flocked to see." Reynolds's hectic schedule of sittings (in 1758 he had sittings every day of the week) provided the income necessary for his move to a larger house in Leicester Fields in 1760.

That year also marked the initial exhibition of the Society of Artists, which was the first public exhibition of paintings to be held in England. Reynolds contributed four portraits, including the classicizing full-length portrait of Elizabeth Gunning, duchess of Hamilton (17581759; Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight). Reynolds continued to exhibit at the Society of Artists; however, he socialized with men of letters, such as Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, and Edmund Burke, and was a founding member of the Literary Club in 1764.

Soon after his two-month trip to Paris, the Royal Academy was founded, in December 1768, and Reynolds was elected its first president. It was for the academy rooms that he painted his only portraits of King George III and Queen Charlotte. Although he never succeeded in winning royal patronage, Reynolds was knighted in April 1769 and named principal painter in 1784 on the death of Allan Ramsay.

The following two decades of Reynolds's career revolved around his dual role as painter and theoretician at the Royal Academy. At the annual exhibitions, Reynolds displayed his most ambitious works, such as Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse (17831784; Huntington Library Art Collections, San Marino, Calif.), in which the dramatic actress is seated in the pose of Michelangelo's prophet Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Presented annually for the first five years and then every other year at the academy's annual awards ceremony, Reynolds's Discourses on Art were not only a prescriptive course of study for aspiring artists, but also presented the president's case for the intellectual status of the artist in society. In his stated theory of beauty in Discourse IX, Reynolds's emphasis on the cerebral is clear: "The beauty of which we are in quest is general and intellectual; it is an idea that subsists only in the mind."

Although Reynolds's dictate to artists urging inventiveness may seem at odds with his own borrowing of poses from antique sculpture and Old Master paintings, his allusions to great works from the past are in keeping with the theory he outlines in Discourse XII: "The daily food and nourishment of the mind of an Artist is found in the great works of his predecessors. There is no other way to become great himself." To this end, Reynolds recommends the "great style" of the Roman and Bolognese schools, as opposed to the "ornamental" approach of the Venetians.

Reynolds's own attempts to achieve the richness of color of Titian and the Venetian school led him to experiment with mixtures of varnish, turpentine, bitumen, and other unconventional ingredients that often caused irreparable damage to his paintings. To Northcote he confessed that "I had not an opportunity of being early initiated in the principles of Colouring." Reynolds stopped painting upon the deterioration of his eyesight in 1789. On his death in 1792, he was buried in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral. In his eulogy, Edmund Burke took up Reynolds's own insistence on the intellectual role of the artist, noting that "he was a profound and penetrating philosopher."

See also Academies of Art ; Art: The Conception and Status of the Artist ; Britain, Art in ; Gainsborough, Thomas .


Primary Sources

Northcote, James. Memoirs of Sir Joshua Reynolds: Comprising Original Anecdotes of Many Distinguished Persons, His Contemporaries, and a Brief Analysis of His Discourses. London, 1813.

Reynolds, Sir Joshua. Discourses on Art. Edited by Robert R. Wark. New Haven and London, 1975.

. The Letters of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Edited by John Ingamells and John Edgcumbe. New Haven and London, 2000.

Secondary Sources

Mannings, David. Sir Joshua Reynolds. A Complete Catalogue of His Paintings. New Haven and London, 2000.

Penny, Nicholas, ed. Reynolds. London, 1986.

Elizabeth A. Pergam

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Reynolds, Joshua (1723–1792)

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