Reynolds, Sir Joshua

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Reynolds, Sir Joshua (1723-1792): English Painter.

Rivaled only by Gainsborough, Thomas, Sir Joshua Reynolds was one of the two greatest English painters of the latter half of the eighteenth century. Born at Plympton in Devon, Reynolds was the son of the Headmaster of the Grammar School. He spent three years studying in London, followed by another six as an independent portraitist back in Devon. 1749, he left England for a tour of Italy and France, and when he returned in 1753, he established his own practice in London.

Reynolds was renowned as a defender of the great style of history painting, which, with its emphasis on significant human action, he considered to be the most elevated and intellectually demanding genre. However, there was no market for history painting at that time, so he was forced to earn a living through portrait painting. He became a highly sought after portraitist and painted most of the major figures of English society in his day. Though Reynolds was known for the variety of styles represented in his portraiture and the psychological insights they display, his forte was the grand male portrait, heroic depictions of his male sitters whom he sought to ennoble in his paintings. Reynolds employed a number of assistants who actually finished his works.

Reynolds was a founder of the Royal Academy in 1768 and, as the obvious choice, was named its first President in 1769. In 1770, he was honored by Oxford University. Knighted in 1769, through his many accomplishments, he elevated the status of professional painters in England. His circle of friends included Johnson, Samuel, Goldsmith, Oliver, and Burke, Edmund.

As President of the Royal Academy, Reynolds delivered a series of 15 public lectures, first annually and later biannually. These were published as his Discourses on Art, which became one of the major texts of English aesthetic theory throughout the next century. During his lifetime, his Discourses were also translated into Italian, French, and German. Reynolds’s Discourses represented both a statement of the policy of the Royal Academy as well as a personal summation of the aesthetic theory of painting of the preceding three centuries.

According to Reynolds, the purpose of painting is not mere decoration or amusement, but rather it aims at the moral improvement of humanity by enlarging the conceptions, captivating the imagination, and warming the heart of the viewer. In order to accomplish this, the painter must do more than merely imitate nature as he finds it; instead the artist seeks to paint an ideal beauty superior to that of any actual individuals. The discernment of such ideal forms requires careful observation and comparison on the part of the artist. Through comparison of particulars, the painter is able to identify their many imperfections and thus abstract general forms of ideal beauty from those same particulars.

For Reynolds, then, the training of the painter involved more than simply attaining a mastery of technique; it involved considerable study of nature and artistic tradition. In addition to observation and experience, Reynolds recommended the study of Greek and Roman sculpture and the great masters, particularly the works of Michaelangelo and Raphael from the Italian Renaissance as well as their 17th century French and Bolognese successors. Thus, for Reynolds, painting was an intellectual discipline, one of the liberal arts.

Further Reading:

F. W. Hilles, The Literary Career of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1936.

Martin Postle, Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Subject Pictures, 1995.

Kevin E. Dodson

Lamar University