Sir Joshua Reynolds was a prominent British painter of the 18th cent. Being a subtle theoretician, Reynolds revolutionized art of portraiture in Britain with his “Grand Style”. The latter idealized models and was based on the ideas not only of Anthony van Dyck, but on painting of Italian Reniassance. With the ideal portrait of Reynolds, British fine art finally achieved its unique and influential character.
The artist believed knowing the experience of his successors was essential for young talents: “Invention is one of the great marks of genius, but if we consult experience, we shall find that it is by being conversant with the inventions of others that we learn to invent, as by reading the thoughts of others we learn to think.”
Joshua Reynolds was born on July 16, 1723, in Plympton, Devon, in a family of a clergyman, teacher of a local grammar school. In the beginning, his parents thought the son was intended for the medical field, but soon they saw he had a different vocation: the boy used to hammer the books on art, copied engravings and draw a lot. In 1741, Joshua was sent for training to the studio of Thomas Hudson. After three years of apprenticeship he returned to Plympton and established a workshop, where he successfully paints portraits. Apart from working in the manner of his teacher, Reynolds was also inspired by William Gandy, who also lived in Devon – in Plymouth.
One of Reynolds’ first portraits – “The Reverend Samuel Reynolds” (ar. 1746) – is executed in fast and smooth brushstrokes, bright colors, typical for works of William Hogarth, whether in his “Self-portrait” (1748-1749) the influence of Rembrandt becomes apparent.
During military exercises in Portsmouth the painter made some portraits of naval officers – this way the image of a “Hero of the day” was introduced into his art. Joshua’s patron, Richard Edgcumbe introduced him to the future admiral Augustus Keppel. The Commodore was given an assignment to the Mediterranean sea in 1749 and he suggested Reynolds to have a voyage on his ship. This way, the artist’s dream of visiting Italy was realized.
After the arrival in Italy in summer of 1749, Joshua Reynolds set off for Rome. From overcooling in Rome he suffered deafness on one ear. Besides the Eternal City, during his three-year stay he visited Florence and Venice. Titian, Veronese, Correggio and van Dyck caused the greatest impact on master. Yet, he wasn’t carried away with mere copying of their pieces but aspired for elaborating his own style. His caricature on English society of 1751 has a clear references on the Raphael’s “The school of Athens”.
On the way back to England via France, Reynolds spent a month in Paris.
After settling in London in 1753, Joshua Reynolds became one of the most famous portraitists of the British capital. A key role in the development of his artistic career played the portrait of Keppel (1753-1754), where admiral is presented in a pose of the Apollo Belvedere. Public had appreciated it a lot and numerous commissions followed it. In some periods of his life the painter made up to hundred portraits a year. Naturally, that affected quality of a certain part of his works. Anyway, most of his canvases demonstrate the highest artistic skill of the author.
1760s were years, when finally close examination of great masters of the 16th and 17th cent. had an effect on Reynold’s legacy. His painting now was more full-blooded, free and unconstrained. Portraits of Laurence Stern (1760) and Nelly O’Brien (1762) are the most significant testimonies of the artistic progress Reynolds had made. They, along with canvases “Elizabeth Gunning, Duchess of Hamilton and Duchess of Argyll” (1760) and “Garrick Between Tragedy and Comedy” (1760-1761), were created with poeticism and solemnity that defined the “Grand style”, as Joshua himself called his manner. In “Elizabeth Gunning, Duchess of Hamilton and Duchess of Argyll” the model is shown in the similitude of Venus ‑ full-length, in beautifully draped antique-like clothing. Pompous entourage was meant to leave an impression of spiritual servants of beauty from all heroes of the artist. In spite of all their ostentatious character and classicistic rigid poses, these portraits are not cold and stiff.
In 1768 Joshua Reynolds was unanimously elected as a President of the Royal academy of Fine Arts – the post he would be holding till the end of his days. He also was the official court painter to King George III and founder of the Literary club and excellent spokesman. All brilliant minds of the London’s society attended dinner parties the painter hosted – military and public officials, scientists, writers, actors and others. Every two years on the grand meeting of the Academy, he made a speech, dedicated to different issue of theory and practice of art. Reynolds saw the purpose of art in making an impression on the imagination and the feeling and considered simple replicating of nature frequently insufficient for this. Once he also noticed “could we teach taste or genius by rules, they would be no longer taste and genius.”
On the July 9, 1774, Joshua Reynolds was granted the degree of Doctor of Civil Law in the University of Oxford and his self-portrait in the academic dress is dated with the same year. In the same robe an analogic pose he decided to depict himself on the painting executed specially for the Florentine gallery. Another peculiar detail of the portrait is the bust of Michelangelo, with whom Reynolds aligned himself, as vigorous and colossal oeuvre of this Italian master was one of his artistic orienteers.
Legacy of Joshua Reynolds at the peak of his creative powers (1770s – 1780s) had two main vectors. On one hand, these were informal portraits, on the other – representative portraits in “Grand style”. Both of them had samples of the exquisite technique, capturing people in the state of the spiritual fervor, when their personal features were most obvious: image of his friend doctor Samuel Johnson (1772), architect Sir William Chambers (beginning of 1780s), colonels John Hayes Leger (1778) and Banastre Tarleton (1782). There’s no allegorism in them – Reynolds painted typical faces, sometimes attractive, sometimes homely, but defined with the devotion to their calling.
Portraits of representatives of bourgeois professions were also common – master preferred picturing them in their household interior, while working or reading, in a family circle, playing with kids. His models could be dressed in a simple dark clothing instead of velvet or silk, but their inner dignity gave them an aristocratic look.
Despite its form of classical representative portrait, “Mrs. Mary Robinson” (1782) was a new type of portrait with a special sentimental and delicate atmosphere that revealed a gradual transition to Romanticism. “Perdita” (the alias of Mary Robinson) wasn’t the only actress, who had the honor to be immortalized by Reynolds – “Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse” is an interesting example of rather pretentious and pathetic composition that should have underlined the reputation of the best-known tragedienne of the 18th century (1785).
In the same period some of the Reynold’s best images of kids and women were made. They bear a certain flavor of lyricism and sweetness, so typical for roccail culture of the 18th cent. The artist masterly rendered the charm of careless, happy childhood: “Mrs. Susanna Hoare and Child” and “The Age of Innocence” (1788) are noticeable for their refined drawing and light and lush painting.
Portraiture wasn’t the only sphere Reynolds tried his hand in. Some mythological and allegorical scenes also belong to his authorship, like “The death of Didio” (1781) and “Cimon and Iphigenia” (ar. 1780). In 1786 – 1788 Catherine the Great commissioned him a large-scale canvas “The Infant Hercules Strangling the Serpents” that glorified imperial victories of her country. Another work of this genre for Russian prince Potemkin was “Continence of Scipio”, which praised the generosity of the roman military leader Scipio Africanus, who gave back a daughter of a beaten king to her fiancé.
Reynolds’ travels to the Continent also promoted spread of his European popularity. In 1768 he visited Paris for the second time, in 1781 – Netherlands and Germany and in 1783 to Flanders (Antwerp and Brussels particularly). Acquaintance with legacy of Peter Paul Rubens prompted him to enrich the painting surface
In 1782 first signs of his disease showed up, but that interrupted his illness just for a short time. In 1789 the situation became worse – the artist went blind in one eye. After that he gave up painting. He died on February 23, 1792.