Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA FRS FRSA (16 July 1723 – 23 February 1792) was an English painter, specialising in portraits. John Russell said he was one of the major European painters of the 18th century. He promoted the "Grand Style" in painting which depended on idealization of the imperfect. He was a founder and first president of the Royal Academy of Arts, and was knighted by George III in 1769.
Joshua Reynolds was born in Plympton, Devon, on 16 July 1723, the third son of the Rev. Samuel Reynolds, master of the Plympton Free Grammar School in the town. His father had been a fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, but did not send any of his sons to the university. One of his sisters was Mary Palmer (1716–1794), seven years his senior, author of Devonshire Dialogue, whose fondness for drawing is said to have had much influence on him when a boy. In 1740 she provided £60, half of the premium paid to Thomas Hudson the portrait-painter, for Joshua's pupilage, and nine years later advanced money for his expenses in Italy.
As a boy, he came under the influence of Zachariah Mudge, whose Platonistic philosophy stayed with him all his life. 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 until it appeared in a Cambridge bookshop, inscribed with the signature ‘J. Reynolds Pictor’, and is now in the collection of the Royal Academy of Arts, London.
Having shown an early interest in art, Reynolds was apprenticed in 1740 to the fashionable London portrait painter Thomas Hudson, who had been born in Devon. Hudson had a collection of Old Master drawings, including some by Guercino, of which Reynolds made copies. Although apprenticed to Hudson for four years, Reynolds remained with him only until summer 1743.
In 1749, Reynolds went to Rome, Italy, where he spent two years, studying the Old Masters and acquiring a taste for the "Grand Style". While in Rome he 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.
Reynolds travelled homeward overland via Florence, Bologna, Venice, and Paris. Following his arrival in England in October 1752, Reynolds spent three months in Devon, before establishing himself in London, where he remained for the rest of his life. He achieved success rapidly, and was extremely prolific. Lord Edgecumbe recommended the Duke of Devonshire and Duke of Grafton to sit for him, and other peers followed, including the Duke of Cumberland, third son of George II. In 1760 Reynolds moved into a large house, with space to show his works and accommodate his assistants, on the west side of Leicester Fields (now Leicester Square).
Alongside ambitious full-length portraits, Reynolds painted large numbers of smaller works. In the late 1750s, at the height of the social season, he received five or six sitters a day, each for an hour. Reynolds often adapted the poses of his subjects from the works of earlier artists. By 1761 Reynolds could command a fee of 80 guineas for a full-length portrait; in 1764 he was paid 100 guineas for a portrait of Lord Burghersh.
The clothing of Reynolds' sitters was usually painted by either one of his pupils, his studio assistant Giuseppe Marchi, or the specialist drapery painter Peter Toms. Lay figures were used to model the clothes.
Reynolds also was recognized for his portraits of children. He emphasized the innocence and natural grace of children when depicting them. His 1788 portrait, Age of Innocence(it will become the title of Edith Wharthon's book Age of Innocence published in 1920), is his best known character study of a child. The subject of the painting is not known, although conjecture includes Theophila Gwatkin, his great niece, and Lady Anne Spencer, the youngest daughter of the fourth Duke of Marlborough.
Although not known principally for his landscapes, Reynolds did paint in this genre. He had an excellent vantage from his house, Wick House, on Richmond Hill, and painted the view in about 1780.
Reynolds worked long hours in his studio, rarely taking a holiday. He was gregarious and keenly intellectual, with many friends from London's intelligentsia, numbered amongst whom were Dr Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, Giuseppe Baretti, Henry Thrale, David Garrick, and artist Angelica Kauffman.
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 brought together the figures of "The" Club. It was founded in 1764 and met in a suite of rooms on the first floor of the Turks Head at 9 Gerrard Street, now marked by a plaque. Original members included Burke, Bennet Langton, Topham Beauclerk, Goldsmith, Anthony Chamier, Thomas Hawkins, and Nugent, to be joined by Garrick, Boswell, and Sheridan. In ten years the membership had risen to 35. The Club met every Monday evening for supper and conversation and continued into the early hours of Tuesday morning. In later years, it met fortnightly during Parliamentary sessions.
Reynolds was one of the earliest members of the Royal Society of Arts, helped found the Society of Artists of Great Britain, and in 1768 became the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts, a position he was to hold until his death. In 1769, he was knighted by George III, only the second artist to be so honoured. His Discourses, a series of lectures delivered at the Academy between 1769 and 1790, are remembered for their sensitivity and perception. In one lecture he expressed the opinion that "invention, strictly speaking, is little more than a new combination of those images which have been previously gathered and deposited in the memory."
Waddesdon manor was amongst the historic houses that supported Sir Joshua Reynolds's influence at the academy, acknowledging how:
"[He] transformed British painting with portraits and subject pictures that engaged their audience's knowledge, imagination, memory and emotions... As an eloquent teacher and art theorist, he used his role at the head of the Royal Academy to raise the status of art and artists of Britain. "
On 10 August 1784 Allan Ramsay died and the office of Principal Painter in Ordinary to King George III became vacant. Thomas Gainsborough felt that he had a good chance of securing it, but Joshua Reynolds felt 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". It did not make Reynolds happy, however, 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, Reynolds lost the sight of his left eye, which forced him into retirement. In 1791 James Boswell dedicated his Life of Samuel Johnson to Reynolds.
In June 1791 Reynolds suffered from a swelling over his left eye and had to be purged by a surgeon. In October he was too ill to take the president's chair.
On 5 November Reynolds, fearing he might not have an opportunity to write a will, wrote a memorandum intended to be his last will and testament, with Edmund Burke, Edmond Malone, and Philip Metcalfe named as executors.
On New Year's Day 1792 Reynolds became "seized with sickness" and from that point could not keep down food. Reynolds died on 23 February 1792 at his house in Leicester Fields in London between eight and nine in the evening.
Edmund Burke was present on the night Reynolds died, and was moved within hours to write a eulogy of Reynolds starting with the following sentiments: "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." Burke's tribute was well received and one journalist called it "the eulogium of Apelles pronounced by Pericles".
Reynolds was buried at St Paul's Cathedral.
In 1903, a statue, by Alfred Drury, was erected in his honour in Annenberg Courtyard of Burlington House, home of the Royal Academy. Around the statue are fountains and lights, installed in 2000, arranged in the pattern of a star chart at midnight on the night of Reynolds' birth. The planets are marked by granite discs, and the Moon by a water recess.
The Royal Academy of Art in London celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2018, since its opening in 1768. This became an impetus for galleries and museums across the UK to celebrate "the making, debating and exhibiting art at the Royal Academy".
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