Sir Joshua Reynolds, English (1723 - 1792)

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Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA FRS FRSA (16 July 1723 – 23 February 1792) was an influential eighteenth-century English painter, specialising in portraits and promoting the "Grand Style" in painting which depended on idealization of the imperfect. He was one of the founders and first president of the Royal Academy, and was knighted by George III in 1769.

Reynolds was born in Plympton, Devon, on 16 July 1723 the third son of the Rev. Samuel Reynolds, master of the Free Grammar School in the town. Samuel Reynolds had been a fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, but did not send any of his sons to the university. One of his sisters was Mary Palmer (1716–1794), seven years his senior, author of Devonshire Dialogue, whose fondness for drawing is said to have had much influence on him when a boy. In 1740 she provided £60, half of the premium paid to Thomas Hudson the portrait-painter, for Joshua's pupilage, and nine years later advanced money for his expenses in Italy.

As a boy, he came under the influence of Zachariah Mudge, whose Platonistic philosophy stayed with him all his life. Reynolds made extracts in his commonplace book from Theophrastus, Plutarch, Seneca, Marcus Antonius, Ovid, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, John Dryden, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Aphra Behn, and passages on art theory by Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Alphonse Du Fresnoy, and André Félibien. The work that came to have the most influential impact on Reynolds was Jonathan Richardson's An Essay on the Theory of Painting (1715). Reynolds' annotated copy was lost for nearly two hundred years until it appeared in a Cambridge bookshop, inscribed with the signature ‘J. Reynolds Pictor’.

Having shown an early interest in art, Reynolds was apprenticed in 1740 to the fashionable London portrait painter Thomas Hudson, who had been born in Devon. Hudson had a collection of old master drawings, including some by Guercino, of which Reynolds made copies. Although apprenticed to Hudson for four years, Reynolds only remained with him until summer 1743. Having left Hudson, Reynolds worked for some time as a portrait-painter in Plymouth Dock (now Devonport). He returned to London before the end of 1744, but following his father's death in late 1745 he shared a house in Plymouth Dock with his sisters.

In 1749, Reynolds met Commodore Augustus Keppel, who invited him to join HMS Centurion, of which he had command, on a voyage to the Mediterranean. While with the ship he visited Lisbon, Cadiz, Algiers, and Minorca. From Minorca he travelled to Livorno in Italy, and then to Rome, where he spent two years, studying the Old Masters and acquiring a taste for the "Grand Style". Lord Edgecumbe, who had known Reynolds as a boy and introduced him to Keppel, suggested he should study with Pompeo Batoni, the leading painter in Rome, but Reynolds replied that he had nothing to learn from him. While in Rome he suffered a severe cold, which left him partially deaf, and, as a result, he began to carry a small ear trumpet with which he is often pictured.

Reynolds travelled homeward overland via Florence, Bologna, Venice, and Paris. He was accompanied by Giuseppe Marchi, then aged about 17. Apart from a brief interlude in 1770, Marchi remained in Reynolds' employment as a studio assistant for the rest of the artist's career. Following his arrival in England in October 1752, Reynolds spent three months in Devon, before establishing himself in London, where remained for the rest of his life. He took rooms in St Martin's Lane, before moving to Great Newport Street, his sister Frances acted as his housekeeper. He achieved success rapidly, and was extremely prolific. Lord Edgecumbe recommended the Duke of Devonshire and Duke of Grafton to sit for him, and other peers followed, including the Duke of Cumberland, third son of George II, in whose portrait, according to Nicholas Penny "bulk is brilliantly converted into power". In 1760 Reynolds moved into a large house, with space to show his works and accommodate his assistants, on the west side of Leicester Fields (now Leicester Square).

Alongside ambitious full-length portraits, Reynolds painted large numbers of smaller works. In the late 1750s, at the height of the social season, he received five or six sitters a day, each for an hour. By 1761 Reynolds could command a fee of 80 guineas for a full-length portrait; in 1764 he was paid 100 guineas for a portrait of Lord Burghersh.

The clothing of Reynolds' sitters was usually painted either by one of his pupils, his studio assistant Giuseppe Marchi, or the specialist drapery painter Peter Toms. James Northcote, his pupil, wrote of this arrangement that "the imitation of particular stuffs is not the work of genius, but is to be acquired easily by practice, and this was what his pupils could do by care and time more than he himself chose to bestow; but his own slight and masterly work was still the best." Lay figures were used to model the clothes.

Reynolds often adapted the poses of his subjects from the works of earlier artists, a practice mocked by Nathaniel Hone in a painting called The Conjuror submitted to the Royal Academy exhibition of 1775, and now in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland. It shows a figure representing, though not resembling, Reynolds, seated in front of a cascade of prints from which Reynolds had borrowed with varying degrees of subtlety.

Although not principally known for his landscapes, Reynolds did paint in this genre. He had an excellent vantage from his house, Wick House, on Richmond Hill, and painted the view in about 1780.

Reynolds also was recognized for his portraits of children. He emphasized the innocence and natural grace of children when depicting them. His 1788 portrait, Age of Innocence, is his best known character study of a child. The subject of the painting is not known, although conjecture includes Theophila Gwatkin, his great niece, and Lady Anne Spencer, the youngest daughter of the fourth Duke of Marlborough.

Reynolds worked long hours in his studio, rarely taking a holiday. He was gregarious and keenly intellectual, with many friends from London's intelligentsia, numbered amongst whom were Dr Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, Giuseppe Baretti, Henry Thrale, David Garrick, and artist Angelica Kauffman. Johnson said in 1778: "Reynolds is too much under Fox and Burke at present. He is under the Fox star and the Irish constellation [meaning Burke]. He is always under some planet".

Because of his popularity as a portrait painter, Reynolds enjoyed constant interaction with the wealthy and famous men and women of the day, and it was he who brought together the figures of "The" Club. It was founded in 1764 and met in a suite of rooms on the first floor of the Turks Head at 9 Gerrard Street, now marked by a plaque. Original members included Burke, Langton, Beauclerk, Goldsmith, Chamier, Hawkins, and Nugent, to be joined by Garrick, Boswell, and Sheridan. In ten years the membership had risen to 35. The Club met every Monday evening for supper and conversation and continued into the early hours of Tuesday morning. In later years, it met fortnightly during Parliamentary sessions. When in 1783 the landlord of the Turks Head died and the property was sold, The Club moved to Sackville Street.

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