1902 Encyclopedia > Sir Joshua Reynolds

Sir Joshua Reynolds
English portrait painter
(1723-92)




SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS (1723-1792), English portrait-painter, was born at Plympton Earl, in Devonshire, on July 16, 1723. He was educated by his father, a clergyman and the master of the free grammar school of the place, who designed his son for the medical profession. But the boy showed a distinct preference for painting. He was constantly copying the plates in Dryden's Plutarch and Cat's Emblems, and poring over Jonathan Richardson's Treatise on Art. At the age of eight, aided by the instructions in The Jesuit's Perspective, he made a sufficiently correct drawing of the Plympton schoolhouse, which greatly astonished his father. It was at length decided that the lad should devote himself to art, and in October 1741 he proceeded to London to study under Thomas Hudson, a mediocre artist, a native of Devonshire, who was popular in the metropolis as a portrait painter. Reynolds remained with Hudson for only two years, acquiring with uncommon aptitude the technicalities of the craft, 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 artists' club that met in Old Slaughters, St Martin's Lane, and gave him much advice as to his work. Reynolds now painted his portraits of Captain Hamilton, father of the marquis of Abercorn, of Mrs Field, of Alderman Tracey, now in the Plymouth Athenoeum, and of the notorious Miss Chudleigh, afterwards duchess of Kingston. To this period, or perhaps to one slightly later, is referable the artist's excellent oval bust portrait of himself, which was included in the Grosvenor Gallery Exhibition of 1884. At Christmas 1746 he was recalled to Plympton to attend the last hours of his father, after whose death he again established himself, now with two of his sisters, at Plymouth Dock, where he painted portraits, and, as he has himself recorded, derived much instruction from an examination of some works by William Gandy of Exeter, whose broad and forcible execution must have been an excellent corrective to the example of Hudson's dry and hard method.

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), who was to play an important and helpful part in the career of the young painter. Keppel was soon 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 Leghorn, and thence, with all eagerness, made his way to Rome.

He has confessed that his first sight of the works of Raphael was a grievous disappointment, and that it required lengthened study before he could appreciate the correctness and grace of the master. By the dignity and imagination of Michelangelo he was deeply impressed ; to the end of life the great Florentine remained for Reynolds the supreme figure in art; his name was constantly upon his lips, and, as he had wished, it was the last that he pronounced to the students of the Royal Academy. Of the influence of Correggio, of his sweetness of expression, of his method of chiaroscuro, we find frequent traces in the works of Sir Joshua, especially in his paintings of children ; but after all it was from the Venetians that the English painter learned most. His own strongest instincts were towards richness and splendour of colour, and in these qualities he found unsurpassable examples in the productions of Titian and Veronese.





While in Rome he avoided, as far as possible, the temptation to spend his time in copying specific pictures, which he considered " a delusive kind of industry," by which " the student satisfies himself with an appearance of doing something, and falls into the dangerous habit of imitating without selecting." His method of becoming acquainted with the old masters, and of assimilating their excellences, was by diligent examination and comparison, aided by studies of general effect and of individual parts. His knowledge of the Roman art treasures was dearly purchased. While working in the corridors of the Vatican he caught a severe cold, which resulted in the deafness that clung to him for the rest of his life, and rendered necessary the ear-trumpet which he used in conversation.

After a residence of two years in Rome, Reynolds, in the spring of 1752, spent four months in visiting Parma, Florence, Venice, and other important cities of Italy; and, after a brief stay in Devonshire, he established himself as a portrait painter in St Martin's Lane, London, whence he afterwards removed to Great Newport Street, and finally, in 1760, to Leicester Square, where he continued to paint till his death.

His first reception on his return was hardly a favourable one. Hudson called to see his productions and told him, " Reynolds, you don't paint so well as when you left England." Ellis, another accepted portrait painter of the time, who had studied under Kneller, exclaimed, " This will never answer. Why, you don't paint in the least like Sir Godfrey,"—adding, as he abruptly left the room, " Shakespeare in poetry, Kneller in painting." The verdict of the public, however, was all on the side of the young innovator. Lord Edgcumbe played the part of the generous patron, and exerted himself to obtain commissions for his protege, of whose ability the portraits which he now produced—of the duchess of Hamilton, the countess of Coventry, Lord Holderness, and especially of his old friend Keppel—were sufficient guarantee. The artist's painting-room was thronged with the wealth and fashion of London, " with women who wished to be transmitted as angels, and with men who wished to appear as heroes and philosophers "; and he was already afloat upon that tide of prosperity which never ebbed till the day of his death. Various other artists contested with him for popular applause. First the Swiss Liotard had his moment of popularity; and at a later period there was Opie, and the more formidable and sustained rivalry of Gainsborough and of Romney; but in the midst of all, then as now, Reynolds maintained an admitted supremacy. And, if the magic of his brush brought him crowds of sitters, his charm of manner gathered round him numerous friends. During the first year of his residence in London he had made the acquaintance of Dr Johnson, which, diverse as the two men were, became a friendship for life. To him Burke and Goldsmith, Garrick, Sterne, Bishop Percy, and, it seems, Hogarth, 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 was occasioned by the management of the various exhibitions, and an influential body of painters withdrew from the society, and proceeded to consider the steps that should be taken in order that their corporate existence might be recognized. 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 was elected, by acclamation, its first president, an honour 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, a more courtly but more commonplace artist. 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 honour him with sittings for portraits to be presented to the Academy.

Reynolds was fitted for his new position no less by his urbane and courteous manner and by his wide general culture than by his eminence as an artist. With unwearied assiduity, with unfailing tact, he devoted himself to furthering the interests of the new Academy. 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. Expressed as they are with simple elegance and perspicuous directness, 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 Dr Johnson's indignant exclamation—" Sir Joshua, sir, would as soon get me to paint for him as to write for him !"

In the unwearied pursuit of his art, and in the calm enjoyment of his varied friendships, Sir Joshua's life flowed on peacefully and happily enough. He was too prosperous and successful an artist altogether to escape the jealousy of his less fortunate and less capable brethren, and he suffered in this way sometimes, especially from the attacks of Barry, a painter who lived long enough to regret and, so far as he was able, to rectify his fault. 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 practise his art till about the end of 1790. His last years were embittered by a most unfortunate disagreement with the Royal Academy, relative to the appointment of a professor of perspective. Under the impression that there was a conspiracy against him among the various members, he signified his intention of leaving the presidential chair, a resignation which he was afterwards induced to withdraw, and his final discourse was delivered on the 10th December 1790. 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 Dr 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 23d February 1792 this great artist and blameless gentleman passed peacefully away.





Reynolds's 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 an especial interest as containing an appreciative but discriminating 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 the president 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 ItemarJcs 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.

But the literary works of Reynolds, excellent as these are, were the occupation of his mere bye hours and times of leisure. The main effort of his life was directed to painting, a pursuit which, as he was aever weary of impressing on younger artists, was enough to occupy a man's whole time, even were it longer than it is, and to call forth his utmost energy. The unceasing application, perseverance, and assiduity which form the recurrent burden of Reynold's discourses found the most complete illustration in his own career. He laid it down as a distinct principle that each fresh portrait to which he set his hand should excel the last, and no effort was wanting to realize this aim. In his search for perfection he would paint and repaint a subject; when a visitor asked how a certain portion of the infant Hercules had been executed, he replied, "How can 1 tell ! There are ten pictures below this, some better, some worse." A method like this contrasts curiously with the swift certainty of Gainsborough's practice, but it must be confessed that the productions of Reynolds have an abiding charm that is wanting in the exquisite but slighter and more mannered work of his great rival. In range, too, of subject, as well as of method, the art of Sir Joshua has by far the wider reach. "How various the man is," said Gainsborough once, after he had been examining the president's portraits hung in an Academy exhibition ; and the remark gains an added point and emphasis when we compare the paintings of Reynolds with Gainsborough's own.

In the work which the painter produced shortly after his return from Italy—in the Lady Cathcart and her Daughter of 1755, the Lady Elizabeth Montague and the George, Earl of Warwick, of 1756, and the Countess of Hyndford of 1757—we find a certain dignity and elegance of pose and arrangement winch bears witness to his foreign studies, joined to some coldness of colour, hardness of execution, and insistence on definiteness of outline, which contrasts with the sweet felicity and tenderness of his fully developed manner, with its perfect colour, and its form which is lost and found again in an exquisite mystery. But soon all that is tentative and immature disappears from his works. In 1758 we have the gracious and winning full-length of Elizabeth Gunning, Duchess of Hamilton, and the stately Duke of Cumberland, followed in 1760 by the Kitty Fisher, and a host of admirable portraits in which the men and'women and children of the time live still before our eyes, each possessed with a nameless dignity, or grace, or sweetness. As the artist advanced towards old age his hand only gained in power, his colour in richness and splendour; his works show no decadence till the day when he finally laid aside his brush. We have nothing finer from his hand than the Mrs Nesbitt as Circe of 1781, the Mrs Siddons as The Tragic Muse of 1784, the Duchess of Devonshire and her Child of 1786, and the Infant Hercules and the Miss Gawtkin as Simplicity of 1788.

In the midst of his constant practice as a portrait-painter Reynolds was true to his early admiration of "the grand style," to his veneration for the old masters of Italy, to his belief that the imaginative paths which these men pursued were the highest ways of art. At the conclusion of his last Academy discourse, while speaking of Michelangelo, he breaks forth with uncontrollable emotion, "Were I now to begin the world again, I would tread in the stops of that great master ; to kiss the hem of his garment, to catch the slightest of his perfections, would be glory and distinction enough for an ambitious man."

From the Italians Reynolds conveyed into his own portrait-subjects a dignity and a grace, along with a power of colour, which were previously unknown in English art ; but he essayed also to follow them into their own exalted and imaginative paths, to paint Holy Families and Nativities, to picture the cardinal virtues, and to realize the conceptions of the poets. But the English portrait-painter wanted the visionary power necessary for such tasks ; his productions of this class form the least interesting portion of his work. They are most successful when the symbolism and the allegory in them are of the slightest, when the human clement is the main attraction, when he paints as cherub faces five different "dews of the countenance of one living English girl, or titles as "Simplicity " his portrait of Offy Gawtkin or as " Hebe" his portrait of Miss Meyer. His series of " The Virtues," designed for the window of New College, Oxford, show simply studies of grace-ful women, lightly draped, and pleasantly posed. His Macbeth and his Cardinal Beaufort have no real impressiveness, no true terror ; and the finest of the subjects that he painted forBoydell's Shakespeare is the Puck, in which the artist's inspiration was caught, not from the realms of imagination or fancy, but from observation of the child nature which he knew and loved.

Much has been said regarding the recklessness and want of care for permanency which characterized the technical methods of Sir Joshua. While he insisted that his pupils should follow only such ways of work as were well known and had been tested by time, he was himself most varying and unsettled in his practice. In his earnest desire for excellence ho tried all known processes, and made all kinds of fantastic experiments. He was firmly convinced that the old masters were possessed of technical secrets which had been lost in later times, and he even scraped the surfaces from portions of valuable works by Titian and Rubens in the vain attempt to probe the mystery In his efforts to attain the utmost possible power and brilliancy of hue he made use of pigments which are admittedly the reverse of stable and permanent, he worked with dangerous vehicles, he employed both colours and varnishes which in combination are antagonistic. Orpiment was mingled with white lead ; wax-medium, egg-varnish, and asphaltum were freely used ; and, when we read the account of his strangely haphazard methods, we are ready to echo Haydon's exclamation—"The wonder is that the picture did not crack beneath the brush !" and are prepared for such a sight of the vanishing ghosts of master-pieces as was afforded by so many works in the Reynolds Exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1884. Our only consolation lies in the truth expressed by Sir George Beaumont, when his recommendation of Sir Joshua for the execution of a certain work was met by the objection that his colours faded, that lie " made his pictures die before the man." "Never mind," said Sir George, "a faded portrait by Reynolds is better thau a fresh one by anybody else."

See Malone, The Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Knight (3 vols., 1798); Northcote, Memoirs of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Knight, &c. (1813); Farrir.gton, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1819); Heeehy, Literary Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1835); Cotton, Sir Joshua Reynolds and his Works (edited by Burnet, 1856); Leslie and Taylor, Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds (2 vols. 1865); and Redgrave, A Century of English Painters, vol. i. (1866). (J. M. G.)



The above article was written by: John M. Gray, Curator, Scottish National Portrait Gallery.



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