Case Study

Sir Joshua Reynolds:

Original, Copy, or Studio Version

"Boy with a Drawing in his Hand"
Before Treatment


Sir Joshua Reynolds
"Of a man so various in his knowledge, so accomplished in his manners, and so eminent in his art, as Sir Joshua Reynolds, it can scarcely ever be possible to give an adequate biography." --James Northcote, 1819.(3)

Sir Joshua Reynolds is generally regarded as the founding father of the British School of Art and is arguably England's most important and influential artist. He completed more than two thousand portraits of the nobility, the influential, the wealthy, and the social and intellectual elite. His work set an accepted standard for 18th-century English portraiture. Reynolds was also a theorist. In a series of 15 Discourses, he expounded on the traditions of classical art and provided an intellectual foundation for English art at that time. These lectures were delivered at the Royal Academy, an organization he helped found in 1768. Reynolds was unanimously elected its first president and served for twenty-two years. The Academy is still in existence today.
Upbringing/Early Years
Reynolds was born on July 16, 1723, in the small town of Plympton, in Devonshire, located on the southwestern coast of England. His father, the Reverend Samuel Reynolds, was the headmaster of a local school. Joshua was raised surrounded by books and intellectual thought.(4) His father wanted him to apprentice at an apothecary, but Joshua had other interests. From an early age, he drew and painted, and often copied prints from art texts in his father's library.
At the age of seventeen, Reynolds went to London to study with the portrait artist Thomas Hudson (1701-1779). He worked with Hudson for three years before returning to Plympton in 1743. Three years later, his father died, prompting the young artist to move with his sisters to Plymouth Dock, now Devonport. This naval town provided Reynolds with an opportunity to solicit portrait commissions from local officers who were also part of the English aristocracy. His "Self-Portrait," completed at the age of twenty-five, captures the young artist looking "confidently towards his bright future."(5)

"Self-Portrait" 1747-48
National Portrait Gallery
London, England
In Plymouth, Reynolds met a young nobleman, the Honorable Augustus Keppel. After painting a fine portrait of the Commodore in 1749, he was invited by Keppel to sail with him to the Mediterranean. Reynolds jumped at the chance, seeing the trip as an artistic opportunity.
  Classical Influences
In 1750, Reynolds arrived in Rome. For two years, he studied the techniques of the classical artists by making drawings of the works of Michael Angelo, Raphael, and their contemporaries. "Of many of the works which he saw, he made slight sketches, and accompanied them with notes respecting their peculiar merits."(6) He also visited Venice, Florence, Bologna, and Parma. "By spending hours in palaces and religious buildings where classical statues and paintings by the old masters were on display, Reynolds memorized faces, expressions, gestures, the arrangement of points of interest, and the uses of background light."(7)
In 1752, Reynolds returned to England, set up a studio in London, and eagerly sought to synthesize the Italian Grand Manner within an English portrait style. It is not surprising that he once again used his friend Augustus Keppel to assist in this endeavor. His 1753 portrait of Keppel is drawn in reverse from the famous ancient Greek statue of the "Apollo Belvedere." The portrait won Reynolds instant acclaim, providing numerous demands for his work. For these commissions, he would often "wrap" his images within a well-known classical composition. Reynolds was laying the groundwork for raising the social status and prestige of the Painter within other areas of the Arts.

"Augustus Keppel" 1752-53
National Maritime Museum
Greenwich, England

"Apollo Belvedere" (Reversed) ca. 350 BC
Vatican Museums
Vatican City
The influx of work was staggering. Between 1758 and 1759, his sitter-book records nearly 300 portrait commissions. Due to this demand, Reynolds employed assistants to finish the background, clothes, and details in his paintings. Although his compositions were often borrowed from classical "parents," his results offered a new format and grandeur to British portraiture. His use of dramatic lighting, the result of 17th-century Dutch and Italian influences, is evident in his "Self-Portrait" from 1753. The painting is clearly reminiscent of Rembrandt's "Self-Portrait" from 1629.

"Self-Portrait" 1753/55
Tate Gallery
London, England

Rembrandt van Rijn "Self-Portrait" 1629
Mauritshuis Collection
The Hague, Holland

The Royal Academy
As commissions increased, so did Reynolds's social standing. In 1760, shortly after George III's accession to the throne, Reynolds bought a large house in Leicester Fields (now Leicester Square)--then the most fashionable part of London. The mansion quickly became one of the city's leading intellectual and social centres. Reynolds assembled statesmen, famous writers, musicians, philosophers, nobles, aristocrats, and the social elite of society and the theatre. Farrington paints a rather colorful characterization: "His house in Leicester Fields was resorted to by the most distinguished characters in the country:--men eminent for their genius, learning and knowledge. He kept what might be almost called an open table, at which were daily seen in larger or smaller numbers, poets, historians, divines, men celebrated for their scientific knowledge, philosophers, lovers of the Arts, and others."(8) Reynolds built a gallery within the home and would use the gatherings to showcase his skills and promote his theories.
Around this time, Reynolds helped organize the Society of Artists.(9) On November 5, 1759, a proposal was made at a meeting of artists for an annual exhibition "in order to encourage Artists whose Abilities and Attainments may justly raise them to Distinction and that their several Abilitys may be brought to Public View."(10) The first exhibition, held in 1760, was a great success, but Reynolds was thinking beyond an annual exhibit: He was interested in establishing an Art Academy. Other artists supported the idea, and on November 28, 1768, a document was submitted to the King to establish "a well regulated School or Academy of Design, for the use of Students in the Arts, and an Annual Exhibition open to all Artists of distinguished Merit, where they may offer their Performances to public Inspection, and acquire that degree of Reputation and Encouragement, which they shall be deemed to deserve."(11)
Believing that the formation of a Royal Academy of Arts in London had great merit, George III signed the founding document on December 10, 1768, the King "graciously declaring himself the patron, protector, and supporter thereof."(12) Reynolds was elected as the Academy's first president and knighted by the King the following year. As president, he used this position to promote himself as the leading proponent of a British movement in which acceptable taste and style in the fine arts were based on classical traditions and the Grand Manner. He presented these theories at the Royal Academy in a series of 15 Discourses.

The Discourses
Reynolds presented his First Discourse on January 2, 1769, at the opening of the Royal Academy. From 1769 to 1790, he delivered fifteen lectures that advanced his views on the moralistic foundations of academic art and became "the official spokesperson for the Academy's thinking."(13) Reynolds sought to establish within English art an intellectual foundation that would raise the status of the English painter. His larger goal, however, was to affect social taste. Art, according to Reynolds, was to elevate the moral conditions of mankind. To this end, he believed artists should seek noble themes and avoid Hogarthian earlier traditions. His standard was the classical tradition, which found its high point in the Renaissance Masters. The Discourses were published after Reynolds's death and his views became the accepted academic opinion on the Grand Manner. The relationship of the Discourses to the treated Flint painting will be discussed later in this Study.
  Portrait Threads
Reynolds completed numerous works exemplifying his interpretation of the Grand Manner. The portrait below of "The Montgomery Sisters," completed in 1774, offered Reynolds an opportunity to veil his composition within a classical framework reminiscent of the Three Graces. One is also reminded of the frolicking figures in Poussin's 1636, "Bacchanalian Revel before a Term of Pan."

"The Montgomery Sisters" 1774
Tate Gallery
London, England

Nicolas Poussin "Bacchanalian Revel..." 1636
The National Gallery
London, England

The "Portrait of Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse" is one of Reynolds's most famous works and serves as a pictorial representation of his intellectual understandings of the Grand Manner. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1783. Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) was a London actress whose celebrity status at the time was mythical. The allegorical, classical setting and the framing figures in Reynolds's composition are borrowed from Renaissance traditions. Mannings points out that it was well known that Siddons's pose bore similarities to Michael Angelo's "Isaiah" in the Sistine Chapel.(14)

"Sarah Siddons" 1783-84
Huntington Art Collections
San Marino, California
While Reynolds is often criticized for his artistic plagiarism, his sentimentality, and his overly pompous renditions, he was equally capable of painting intimate, masterful portraits of his personal friends. These portraits offer an insight into his ability to render psychological depth. His genius is recorded in Edmond Malone's statement in The Literary Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds: "Instead of confining himself to mere likenesses, in which however he was eminently happy, he dived, as it were, into the minds, and habits, and manners, of those who sat to him; and accordingly the majority of his portraits are so appropriated and characteristick, that the many illustrious persons whom he has delineated, will be almost as well known to posterity, as if they had seen and conversed with them."(15)

"Sir Joseph Banks" 1771-72
National Portrait Gallery
London, England
Reynolds's "Sir Joseph Banks" was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1773. Banks (1743-1820) was an explorer and a botanist who sailed with Captain Cook to the Pacific aboard Endeavour. He was also one of the early advisors on the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.(16) In Reynolds's portrait, his friend Banks is portrayed surrounded by his maps, letters, and table globe signifying his worldly travels. Reynolds has painted the figure rising from his chair, as if the viewer has just entered the room and Banks paused momentarily in his reflections to greet him. The composition is as successful here as it is in Rembrandt's "Syndics of the Cloth Guild" from 1662.
Professor Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) was a philosopher and author at the University of Edinburgh, and a central figure of the Scottish Enlightenment. In this portrait of his personal friend, Reynolds allows the viewer to step into Ferguson's moment of reflection. The sitter, deep in thought, seems to be meditating on a phrase or idea. Sir Walter Scott declared that "long after his eightieth year (Ferguson) was one of the most striking old men whom it was possible to look at."(17) Reynolds has captured this quality and his inner soul.

"Adam Ferguson" 1781-82
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Edinburgh, Scotland
While Reynolds was capable of painting both heroic and intimate portraits, there was a third division within his creative spirit. These were the paintings that he painted for himself--paintings of subjects that caught his fancy, often referred to as his "fancy pictures." The next page takes a closer look at some of the images within this category.

Late Years
In 1789, Reynolds lost the sight in his left eye and was forced to abandon his painting career. The following year, he resigned his position as president of the Royal Academy. He offered his final Discourse on December 10, 1790. Reynolds died on February 23, 1792. He was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral, London.
(3) Northcote, James. The Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Vol. 1. 1818. Reprint 2006. Kessinger Publishing. p.ix. James Northcote was one of Reynolds's assistants. He joined Reynolds's studio in 1771 and continued his services until 1776. His direct knowledge of Reynolds's environment and working methods is an invaluable resource on the life of the artist.
(4) Gifford, Katya. Biographical information and selected phrases throughout this page referenced from: Accessed 5/24/07.
(5) Farrington, J. Postle Introduction. p.8.
(6) Farrington, J. p.56.
(7) Gifford, K.
(8) Farrington, J. p.87.
(9) Information on Society of Artists and Royal Academy from Accessed 6/24/07.
(10) Walpole Society, Vol. vi, 1918, "The Papers of the Society of Artists of Great Britain." p.116. Cited in above site, Footnote 3.
(11) The Royal Academy, General Assembly Minutes, 14 Dec. 1768. Cited in above site, Footnote 13.
(12) Lamb, Sir W. R. M. The Royal Academy, 1951 ed., pp.8, 193. Cited in above site, Footnote 14.
(13) Gifford, K.
(14) Mannings, D. p.414.
(15) Malone, Edmond (ed.) (1819) The Literary Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds. 1798. pp.xxiv-xxv.
(16) Biographical information from Accessed 6/24/07.
(17) Quote taken from Mannings, D. p.185.


Table of Contents, Biography, Reynolds's Fancy Pictures


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