He is, historically, the most important figure in British painting. He was born at Plympton St Maurice in Devon, where his father was a clergyman, headmaster of the Grammar School, and a former Fellow of Balliol: this is worth mentioning because it shows that Reynolds was born and brought up in an educated family at a time when most English painters were hardly more than ill-educated tradesmen. Reynolds himself became the close friend of Dr Johnson, Goldsmith, Burke and Carrick, and it it probaly true that he did more to raise the status of the artist in England through his learning and personal example than by his actual quality as an artist.
He was apprenticed to Hudson in 1740, in London, but in 1743 he left his master and returned to Devonshire; from 1743 to 1749 he was in practice on his own in London and Devonshire, before leaving for Italy in 1749. As early as 1746 he painted the Eliot Family Group, based on a famous van Dyck at Wilton House, and this already shows the fundamental basis of his art - the deliberate use of allusion to the Old Masters or Antique sculpture, as a classical literary allusion might have been used by an 18th-century speaker or writer. This appeal to the educated eye, above and beyond the needs of mere likeness, is the essence of his own style and the reason for the rise in public esteem for the visual arts which is so marked a feature of his age.
In 1749 he had the chance to go to Italy with Commodore (later Admiral Viscount) Keppel, who was also to become one of his best friends. Up to this time the main influences on his style had been Hogarth, Ramsay, and to a moderate extent only, Hudson; he now spent two years (1750-52) in Rome, where he made a prolonged study of the Antique, of Raphael and, above all, of Michelangelo. Here he learned the intellectual basis of Italian art (just as Wilson was doing), and this was something that scarcely any other British painter, with the possible exception of Ramsay, had done up to then, even in Rome itself. In fact, Reynolds's own practice as a portrait painter was more profoundly influenced by the few weeks he spent in Venice on his way home in 1752. He never ceased to exhort his students to master the principles of the Grand Style, and indeed he genuinely regarded Venetian art, and portrait painting, as of less importance.
In 1753 he set up in London, met Dr Johnson, and began rapidly to make a name. He sought consciously to marry the Grand Style with the demands of face-painting (and earning a living), and he succeeded so well that he was soon employing assistants, although the Kneller school was not converted ('Shakespeare in poetry, and Kneller in painting, damme!' as one of them observed). Only Ramsay and Cotes were rivals of any significance, but by 1768, when the Royal Academy was founded, it was obvious that Reynolds was the only possible choice for President. He was knighted in 1769, given an Honorary Doctorate at Oxford (an honour previously given only to Kneller among painters), and elected Mayor of his native Plympton in 1772.
The works of the years following 1768 show him at his most classical and most learned, determined to use the Academy as an instrument to forge a British School of history painters to stand beside those of Rome or Bologna. To this end he composed and delivered at intervals (1769-90) the fifteen 'Discourses' which are the most lucid and sensible exposition of the Academic position that, by well-directed labour, it is possible to learn the Rules of Art and to use the inventions and ideas of one's predecessors to create a new style of one's own.
During these years Reynolds exhibited regularly at the Academy and usually showed a skilful blend of large portraits treated in a historical manner, history pictures proper, and some curious combinations of the two, such as Dr Beattie (The Triumph of Truth) (Aberdeen Univ.), or Three Ladies Adorning A Term of Hymen (London, NG), both in the RA of 1774. This idea had been exploited by him as early as 1760/61 in his Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy, a thoroughly 'learned' picture which he exhibited in 1762 at the Society of Artists, the Academy's precursor. He won the victory in general terms, although many ladies still preferred to be painted by Gainsborough in a fashionable gown rather than the 'nightgowns' which Sir Joshua insisted on, as less subject to the vagaries of fashion and more nearly classical in type; although pictures like Lady Sarah Bunbury Sacrificing to the Graces (Chicago) come close to the ridiculous.
In 1781 he made a journey to Flanders and Holland and was profoundly influenced by the force and freedom of Ruben's handling, and from then until his sight failed in 1789 his works are less consciously classical and painted with greater warmth and feeling. The overwhelming majority of his vast output consists of portraits, which include almost every man and woman of note in England in the second half of the 18th-century. Unlike Gainsborough, he employed many pupils and assistants and his work also differs from Gainsborough's in being frequently poorly preserved on account of his bad technical procedures. The faces of his sitters are often deathly pale because the carmine (a fugitive red) has faded out completely.
There is a fine double portrait of Burke and Rockingham in Cambridge (Fitzwm), which is unfinished and shows his methods. Most of his sitter-books (diaries of appointments) and ledgers still exist and thus nearly all of his works are documented: practically every museum in Britain and America contains one or more, and others are as far afield as St Petersburg and Sao Paulo, Dresden and Adelaide, Budapest and Ottawa.
- Source: The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists (Penguin Reference Books)
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