Birthplace: Plympton St. Maurice, Devon, England
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, St. Paul's Cathedral, London, England
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Painter, Author
Executive summary: English portraitist
Sir Joshua Reynolds, the most prominent figure in the English school of painting, was born at Plympton Earl, in Devonshire, on the 16th of July 1723. He received a fairly good education from his father, who was a clergyman and the master of the free grammar school of the place. At the age of seventeen, the lad, who had already shown a fondness or drawing, was apprenticed in London to Thomas Hudson, a native of Devonshire, who, though a mediocre artist, was popular as a portrait painter. Reynolds remained with Hudson for only two years, and in 1743 he returned to Devonshire, where settling at Plymouth Dock he employed himself in portrait painting. By the end of 1744 he was again in London. He was well received by his old master, from whom he appears previously to have parted with some coldness on both sides. Hudson introduced him to the artist's club that met in Old Slaughter's, St. Martin's Lane, and gave him much advice as to his work. Reynolds now painted a portrait of Captain John Hamilton, the first that brought him any notice, with those of other people of some repute; but on the death of his father in 1746 he established himself with two of his sisters at Plymouth Dock, where he painted numerous portraits, and it was here that he came under the influence of the works of one of the painters who materially affected his art. This was William Gandy of Exeter, who had died in 1730, and whose painting, derived through his father from Anthony Van Dyck, was pronounced by Northcote to come nearer to nature in the texture of flesh than that of any artist who ever lived. The influence on him of Gandy may be seen in the early self-portrait of the National Portrait Gallery, so rich in impasto and strong in light and shade, in which he is seen shading his eyes with his hand.
Meanwhile the pleasant urbanity of manner which distinguished Reynolds throughout life had been winning for him friends. He had made the acquaintance of Lord Edgcumbe, and by him was introduced to Captain (afterwards Viscount) Keppel. Keppel was made aware of Reynolds's ardent desire to visit Italy; and, as he had just been appointed to the command of the Mediterranean squadron, he gracefully invited the artist to accompany him in his own ship, the "Centurion." The offer was gladly accepted. While Keppel was conducting his tedious negotiations with the dey of Algiers, relative to the piracy with which that potentate was charged, Reynolds resided at Port Mahon, the guest of the governor of Minorca, painting portraits of the principal inhabitants; and in December 1749 he sailed for Livorno, and from there, with all eagerness, made his way to Rome.
He has confessed that his first sight of the works of Raphael was a grievous disappointment, but he recognized afterwards, as he said, that the fault was in himself, and he brought his mind ultimately into the fitting posture of reverence. The fact is significant of Reynolds' attitude towards the older masters. It has been often noticed that in his "Discourses" and elsewhere he praises just the very masters whose practice his own work implicitly condemns. The truth is that Reynolds was naturally a good critic, but was not strong enough to believe in his own opinions if they ran counter to the prevailing taste of his times. Of the early Italians he praises the "simplicity and truth" and observes that they "deserve the attention of a student much more than many later artists." In Venice he adopted a method of study that only a born painter could have thought of, making memoranda of the gradations of light and shade in the pictures, "and this without any attention to the subject, or to the drawing of the figures." On the other hand, we find him lavishing both attention and eulogy on the later Italian mannerists, such as Guido and the Carracci, and even Salviati and Vasari.
After a residence of more than two years in Rome, where he caught a severe cold which resulted in the deafness that clung to him for the rest of his life, Reynolds, in the spring of 1752, spent five months in visiting Parma, Florence, Venice and other important cities of Italy. Returning to England by way of Paris, Reynolds, after a brief stay in Devonshire, established himself as a portrait painter in St. Martin's Lane, London, from where he afterwards removed to Great Newport Street, and finally, in 1760, to Leicester Square, where he continued to paint until his death.
In London, Reynolds stepped at once and without a struggle into a foremost position as the fashionable portrait painter of the day. In this he was greatly helped by his success in society. Throughout his career his social occupations claimed the next place to his painting, and here it may be noticed that, though we read of some little ostentation in the form of a showy chariot and livened lackeys, his good taste always kept him from any undue "push", or adulation of the great. At the outset Lord Edgcumbe played the part of the generous patron, and exerted himself to obtain commissions for his protégé, of whose ability the portraits which he now produced -- especially the famous full-length of his old friend Keppel -- were sufficient guarantee. The artist's painting room was thronged with the wealth and fashion of London. In 1755 his clients for the year numbered 120, and in 1757 the number of sittings recorded in his pocketbooks reached a total of 677. He was not always so busy, but his popularity never really waned, though various other artists competed with him for popular applause. First the Swiss Liotard had his momemt of popularity; and at a later period there was Opie, and the more formidable and sustained rivalry of Thomas Gainsborough and of Romney; but in the midst of all Reynolds maintained his position unimpaired. During the first year of his residence in London he had made the acquaintance of Samuel Johnson, which, diverse as the two men were, became a friendship for life. To him Burke and Goldsmith, Garrick, Sterne and Bishop Percy were before long added. At the hospitable dinner table of Reynolds such distinguished men enjoyed the freest and most unconstrained companionship, and most of them were members of the "Literary Club", established at the painter's suggestion in 1764.
In 1760 the London world of art was greatly interested by the novel proposal of the Society of Artists to exhibit their works to the public. The hall of the society was at their disposal for the purpose; and in the month of April an exceedingly successful exhibition was opened, the precursor of many that followed. To this display Reynolds contributed four portraits. In 1765 the association obtained a royal charter, and became known as "The Incorporated Society of Artists"; but much rivalry and jealousy were occasioned by the management of the various exhibitions, and an influential body of painters withdrew from the society. They had access to the young king, George III, who promised his patronage and help. In December 1768 the Royal Academy was founded, and Reynolds, whose adhesion to the movement was for a time doubtful, was hailed by acclamation its first president, an honor which more than compensated for his failure to obtain the appointment of king's painter, which, the previous year, had been bestowed on Allan Ramsay. In a few months the king signified his approval of the election by knighting the new president, and intimating that the queen and himself would honor him with sittings for portraits to be presented to the Academy.
Reynolds was in every way fitted for his new position, and until Lord Leighton the Academy never had so good a figurehead. He did not take any part in the educational work of the new institution, but on the social side he set the Academy on the lines it has followed with the greatest worldly success ever since. It was at his suggestion that the annual banquet was instituted. To the specified duties of his post he added the delivery of a presidential address at the distribution of the prizes, and his speeches on these occasions form the well-known "Discourses" of Sir Joshua. These discourses alone would be sufficient to entitle their author to literary distinction; indeed, when they were first delivered, it was thought impossible that they could be the production of a painter, and Johnson and Burke have been credited with their composition, in spite of the specific denials of both, and of Johnson's indignant exclamation -- "Sir Joshua, sir, would as soon get me to paint for him as to write for him!"
Sir Joshua was too prosperous and successful an artist altogether to escape the jealousy of his less fortunate or less capable brethren, and it must on the other side be admitted that his attitude towards some of his contemporaries was wanting in generosity. His relations with Gainsborough, who on his part was in fault, would require more space for discussion than can here be afforded, but he was not just either to William Hogarth or to Richard Wilson. It may be added that though Reynolds's friends were genuinely fond of him, his was not a nature that could inspire or feel any great warmth of personal feeling. Cosmo Monkhouse in the Dictionary of National Biography speaks of the beauty of his disposition and the nobility of his character, but adds: "he was a born diplomatist." The latter phrase gives the real key to his character. Without going so far as fully to endorse the sentiment of Mrs. Thrale's famous line about a "heart too frigid" and a "pencil too warm", we must agree that the attitude of Reynolds towards his fellow men and women was one of detachment. Hence we regard Reynolds as a man with tempered admiration, and reserve our enthusiasm for his art. In 1784, on the death of Ramsay, Reynolds was appointed painter to the king. Two years previously he had suffered from a paralytic attack; but, after a month of rest, he was able to resume his painting with unabated energy and power. In the summer of 1789 his sight began to fail; he was affected by the gutta serena, but the progress of the malady was gradual, and he continued occasionally to practice his art until about the end of 1790, delivering his final discourse at the Academy on the 10th of December. He was still able to enjoy the companionship of his friends, and he exerted himself in an effort to raise funds for the erection of a monument in St. Paul's to Johnson, who had died in 1784. Towards the end of 1791 it was evident to the friends of Reynolds that he was gradually sinking. For a few months he suffered from extreme depression of spirits, the result of a severe form of liver complaint, and on the 23rd of February 1792 this great artist and blameless gentleman passed peacefully away.
As a painter Reynolds stands, with Gainsborough, just behind the very first rank. There can be no question of placing him by the side of the greatest Venetians or of the triumvirate of the 17th century, Rubens, Rembrandt, Velázquez; but, if he fail also to equal either Hals or Van Dyck, this is due, not to any defect in his natural capacity, but to deficiencies in his education combined with the absence in his case of that splendid artistic tradition on which the others leaned. He could not draw the figure properly; nor could he as a rule compose successfully on anything like a monumental scale. English painters in his early days possessed a sound technique, and most of Hogarth's best pictures are perfectly well preserved as well as beautifully painted but Reynolds was not content with the tried methods Hudson could have taught him. In the desire to compass that creaminess, that juicy opulence in color and texture, of which he conceived the idea before the Italian journey, and which he found realized in the works of the Venetians and Correggio, he embarked on all sorts of fantastic experiments in pigments and media, so that Haydon exclaimed, "The wonder is that the picture did not crack beneath the brush!" The result was the speedy ruin of many of his own productions, and he inaugurated an era of uncertainty in method which seriously compromised the efforts of his successors in the English school.
The motive for this procedure may explain if it do not justify it. He was all his life intensely in earnest about his art, devoured by what he himself calls "a perpetual desire to advance"; and he accounts for his own uncertainty partly from his want of training, and partly from his "inordinate desire to possess every kind of excellence" he saw in the works of others. Now if this mental energy led him into hazardous attempts to find a royal road to the painter's ideal, it acted well upon his design in lending to it a certain intellectual solidity, which gives it an advantage over the slighter, though at times more exquisite, productions of the pencils of Gainsborough or Romney. The weight and power of the art of Reynolds are best seen in those noble male portraits, "Lord Heathfield", "Johnson", "Sterne", "Goldsmith", "Gibbon", "Burke", "Fox", "Garrick", that are historical monuments as well as sympathetic works of art. In this category must be included his immortal "Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse."
In portraits of this order Reynolds holds the field, but he is probably more generally admired for his studies of women and of children, of which the Althorp portraits of the Spencer family are classic examples. Nature had singled out Sir Joshua to endow him with certain gifts in which he has hardly an equal. No portrait painter has been more happy in his poses for single figures, or has known better how to control by good taste the piquant, the accidental, the daring, in mien and gesture. "Viscountess Crosbie" is a striking instance. When dealing with more than one figure he was not always so happy, but the "Duchess of Devonshire and her Baby", the "Three Ladies decking a Figure of Hymen", and the "Three Ladies Waldegrave" are brilliant successes. He was felicitous too in his arrangement of drapery, often following his own fashion of investing his graceful dames in robes of ideal cut and texture, quite apart from the actual clothes worn at the time. Few painters, again, have equalled the president in dainty and at the same time firm manipulation of the brush. The richness of his deeper coloring is at times quite Venetian. For pure delight in the quality of paint and color we cannot do better than go to the "Angels' Heads" of the National Gallery, or the "Nelly O'Brien" in the Wallace Collection.
It corresponds with what has been noted as Reynolds's habit of mind in regard to older art to find him throughout his life hankering after success in what he was fond of calling the "grand style" in "historical painting." His failure here is as notorious as his brilliant success in the field of art for which nature had equipped him. His "Ugolino", his "Macbeth", his "Cardinal Beaufort", have no real impressiveness, while his greatest effort in the "historic" style, the "Infant Hercules" at St. Petersburg, resulted in his most conspicuous disaster.
It is in the "Discourses" that Reynolds unfolds these artistic theories that contrast so markedly with his own practice. The first discourse deals with the establishment of an academy for the fine arts, and of its value as being a repository of the traditions of the best of bygone practice, of "the principles which many artists have spent their lives in ascertaining." In the second lecture the study of the painter is divided into three stages -- in the first of which he is busied with processes and technicalities, with the grammar of art, while in the second he examines what has been done by other artists, and in the last compares these results with Nature herself. In the third discourse Reynolds treats of "the great and leading principles of the grand style"; and succeeding addresses are devoted to such subjects as "Moderation", "Taste", "Genius", and "Sculpture." The fourteenth has a special interest as containing a notice of Gainsborough, who had died shortly before its delivery; while the concluding discourse is mainly occupied with a panegyric on Michelangelo.
The other literary works of Reynolds comprise his three essays in The Idler for 1759-60 ("On the Grand Style in Painting", and "On the True Idea of Beauty"), his notes to Du Fresnoy's Art of Painting, his Remarks on the Art of the Low Countries, his brief notes in Johnson's Shakespeare, and two singularly witty and brilliant fragments, imaginary conversations with Johnson, which were never intended by their author for publication, but, found among his papers after his death, were given to the world by his niece, the marchioness of Thomond.
Reynolds left to his niece, Mary Palmer, the bulk of his property, about £100,000, with works of art that sold for £30,000 more. There were, besides, legacies amounting to about £15,000. His body rests in St. Paul's.
Father: (d. 1746)
High School: Plympton grammar school
Royal Academy of Arts President, 1768 (first)
Royal Society of Arts
Stroke 1782 (paralytic)
Proxy Baptism: Mormon St. George, UT (Aug-1877)
Is the subject of books:
Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1933, BY: John Steegmann
Reynolds, 1941, BY: Ellis K. Waterhouse
Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1958, BY: Derek Hudson
Author of books:
Discourses Delivered at the Royal Academy (1769–91, criticism)
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