A History of Art in England (22): Joshua Reynolds

Reynolds, Joshua, 1723-1792; Sir Joshua Reynolds

Self-Portrait [c.1747; National Portrait Gallery]

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) is renowned as the first President of the Royal Academy where his lectures – published as “Discourses in Art” – stressed the Italian Renaissance traditions and learning from the Old Masters. According to John Rothenstein in “An Introduction to English Painting”, Reynolds was a great artist whose influence was as decisive as that of Hogarth.

“[Reynolds] believed that the classical artists of Italy had perfected a tradition to which no others could hold a candle, that they were, in short, masters of the great unchanging principles of painting.”

In turn he promoted art as concerning itself with ideal aspects of nature, its subjects drawn from history or mythology – so-called History Painting.

Reynolds’ own art, however, was that of portraiture, which he brought “to a maturity and splendour that caused the work of his predecessors to appear archaic and provincial by comparison” says Rothenstein.

This is a progression rather than a sudden shift, and I’m fascinated by the continuations.

Take one of Reynolds’ most (to my mind) extraordinary paintings:

Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen 1773 by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792

Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen [1773; Tate]

The aristocratic Montgomery sisters, Barbara, Elizabeth and Anne, are shown decorating a statue of Hymen, the Greek god of marriage and fertility, with flowers…  The women’s poses are more often associated with the Graces than portraits of aristocratic women.

This is portraiture in the Grand Manner so appreciated by Reynolds: a huge canvas, its subjects mimic renaissance ideals in reference to mythological legend; and note also the inclusion of ‘classical’ busts and columns – all to raise the art of portraiture to create “a moral and heroic symbolism”.

It’s a theatricality we can trace all the way back through the dressing-up masquerades and Roman flavours in the Baroque art of the Stuart court, not to mention the love of the theatre itself that continued to spread amongst the 18th century population of England.

This ‘bringing together’ of antiquity- and Old-Master-style was often criticised:

Rambling 7

Nathaniel Hone: The Conjurer [1775; National Gallery of Ireland]

This beautifully executed satirical painting (the full title of which is ‘The Pictorial Conjuror, Displaying the Whole Art of Optical Deception’) caused an outcry when it was submitted by the artist for exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, in 1775. The reason given was that included in the picture was a nude caricature of the Swiss painter Angelica Kauffman… The true cause of offence, however, was that the picture was seen as an attack on Kauffman’s friend Joshua Reynolds, President of the Royal Academy. His practice of borrowing poses from Old Master paintings to ennoble his portraits was seen by Hone as plagiarism.

It’s a harsh critique and I’m not sure entirely fair for whilst William Blake and, later, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood would also criticise Reynolds (for various reasons), JMW Turner had a much more positive view of him as a teacher and role model:

[Turner] once declared that he spent ‘the happiest perhaps of my days’ with Reynolds, and in later life Reynolds was the only English artist that Turner ever discussed – writes Peter Ackroyd in his brief biography “Turner” [Vintage, 2006]

It may be that Turner recognised Reynolds experimentation. There is a fascinating sketch in the Tate collection:

Sketch for 'The 4th Duke of Marlborough and his Family' c.1777 by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792

Sketch for “The 4th Duke of Marlborough and his Family” [1777; Tate]

This sketch shows the painter struggling with the problem of integrating the solemn splendour of the adults with a more modern, relaxed informality preferred for young children and dogs says the Tate website, suggesting that Reynolds was actively working on how a modern portrait/ conversation piece might look – the sophisticated adults amidst the ‘Hogarthian’ play of the children.

There is also an intriguing canvas in the Royal Academy collection:

Reynolds, Joshua, 1723-1792; Studio Experiments in Colour and Media

Studio Experiments in Colour and Media

This canvas was used by Sir Joshua Reynolds to experiment on gums, varnishes, oils and waxes as well as various pigments probably to record the effects of time on the colours and materials – RA

A 2015 catalogue “Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint” from an exhibition at The Wallace Collection [edited by Lucy Davis and Mark Hallett] also suggests how Reynolds’s innovations as a painter were often the product of collaboration – in part, with his assistants and his students, but, more importantly, with his patrons and subjects, with whom he continually explored the possibilities of gesture, expression, performance and role-play suggesting again Reynolds’ modernity in an age of scientific research and people’s individuality and self-identities.

Certainly he brilliantly emphasises identity and personality in

Rambling 8

Elizabeth Linley (1754–1792), Mrs Richard Brinsley Sheridan as Saint Cecilia [1775; Waddesdon Manor, National Trust]

Elizabeth Linley was a renowned singer and writer. She’s shown playing a pipe organ, but – and here Reynolds takes us by complete surprise – Elizabeth appears to stare at clouds and a ray of light that materialise above the organ suggesting perhaps her extraordinary musicality and imagination, recognising certainly Reynolds’ play and enjoyment in his art-making.

Elizabeth was muse to a number of painters, including Thomas Gainsborough, Reynolds’ great rival, who we’ll meet in Rambling (23).


There’s to be an on-line lecture on 18th June given by Martin Postle about Joshua Reynolds called “The Artist and Intellectual” see Paul Mellon Centre.



Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (22)

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About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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