Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), the outstanding intellectual force among English artists of his age, vir tually created a new type of portraiture by interpreting the humanity of his sitters in terms of the heroic tradition of Old Master history painting.
Joshua Reynolds was born on July 16, 1723, at Plympton, Devon, the third son and seventh child of the Reverend Samuel Reynolds, master of the Plympton Grammar School and sometime fellow of Balliol College, Oxford. Joshua was enabled by education, ability, and inclination to move all his adult life with ease and distinction in literary and learned circles. A vocation for art was confirmed by reading as a boy Jonathan Richardson's Essay on the Theory of Painting (1715), with its program for restoring portraiture to the dignity of high art, and at the age of 17 Joshua was apprenticed to Richardson's son-in-law, Thomas Hudson, in London.
Reynolds set up on his own in 1743 and practiced in Plympton and London. His work of this period shows the influence of Anthony Van Dyck and the innovations introduced by William Hogarth, then at the height of his powers.
In 1749 Reynolds sailed for Italy as the guest of Commodore Augustus Keppel. In Rome, Reynolds studied the Old Masters with a single-mindedness unmatched by any earlier English painter. His only diversion was a small number of caricature paintings in the manner of his fellow Devonian Thomas Patch. Raphael was Reynolds's hero, but on his way back to England he visited northern Italy and came under the spell of the Venetian painters and Correggio.
Reynolds settled in London in 1753 and established his reputation as the foremost portrait painter with Captain the Hon. Augustus Keppel (1753-1754), the first of a long series of portraits ennobled by a borrowed pose, here taken from the Apollo Belvedere. He used borrowed attitudes in two ways: as a mode of elevation and as a species of wit. As Horace Walpole noted, both usages are controlled by intellect and taste, manifested in the aptness of his application to the sitter's character, achievement, or role in society.
After his election as foundation president of the Royal Academy in 1768 until his death in London on Feb. 23, 1792, Reynolds's life was too closely intertwined with the artistic, literary, and social history of his time for a summary to be adequate. A small group of portraits of men of genius with whom he was intimate, headed by Dr. Johnson, is unique in European art in that each is accompanied by a written character sketch which is a masterpiece of psychological assessment.
Reynolds delivered 15 discourses to the members and students of the Royal Academy between 1769 and 1790. They upheld the ideal theory in art and constituted the classic formulation of academic doctrine after more than 2 centuries of debate.
Reynolds's main types of portraiture commemorate naval and military heroes, civil and ecclesiastical dignitaries, the English landowning oligarchy in both its public and private aspects, actors and actresses, and children in fanciful roles, related in their vein of sentiment to "fancy pictures" like the Age of Innocence (1788). His most ambitious translation of a subject picture into a portrait is the group of the daughters of Sir William Montgomery, the Graces Adorning a Term of Hymen (1774), a Miltonian bridal masque in which the rite of worship to the God of Wedlock is performed by three famous beauties, one recently married, another preparing for marriage, and the third still to be betrothed. Among the finest of his heroicized military portraits in a battle setting are Colonel Banastre Tarleton (1782) and George Augustus Eliott, Lord Heathfield (1788).
A visit to Flanders and Holland in 1781 renewed Reynolds's enthusiasm for Peter Paul Rubens and was followed by a decade of prodigious creative energy. To this final phase belong most of Reynolds's history paintings, including those commissioned for John Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery and the Infant Hercules (1788), commissioned by the Empress of Russia. Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse (1784) shows the actress flanked by emblems of Open and Secret Murder and assembles motives borrowed from Michelangelo, with whose name he closed his last discourse.
As the foundation president of the Royal Academy, Reynolds guided its destinies in its momentous first phase, devoting his immense influence to the single goal of forming a national school of history painters choosing their exalted themes not only from the Bible and classical antiquity but also from Shakespeare and the national past. Courteous, affable, and open to new ideas, he steered a liberal and tactful course and stamped a character of devotion to high art on the institution that lasted into the age of J. M. W. Turner and even beyond.
Further Reading on Sir Joshua Reynolds
The definitive edition of Reynold's Discourses on Art was edited by Robert R. Wark (1959). Frederick Whiley Hilles edited Letters of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1929) and Reynolds's Portraits (1952), which contains written character sketches of Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, and others. The monumental study of Charles Robert Leslie and Tom Taylor, Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds (2 vols., 1865), should be supplemented by Frederick Whiley Hilles, The Literary Career of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1936). See also Derek Hudson, Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Personal Study (1958). The best-illustrated and most critical study of Reynolds's art is Ellis K. Waterhouse, Reynolds (1941).
Additional Biography Sources
Steegman, John, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1977; Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978.