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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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During the 18th century, Joshua Reynolds was the foremost portraitist. He brought new life to the genre and raised its status to compete with that attributed to the great religious and historical masterworks.

Reynolds earned fame and response during his lifetime. His style brought the English portraiture style together with ideas brought from the Old Masters and made large-scale pieces commissioned of the top of British high society into fashionable images. His work went beyond these esteemed figures and includes early celebrities such as well-known actors and courtesans. Theatrical elements such as brightly coloured props, ornate costumes, fantastical landscapes and classical symbolism with an irreverent twist were brought together in the artist's work.

Joshua Reynolds was one of the key figures in the founding of the Royal Academy of Arts. This institution provided many artists with their first public opportunity to display their work. Reynolds was its first president and his intelligent ideas and emphasis on education brought him and the position a great deal of respect. The focus on these elements can clearly be seen in his series of lectures titled "Discourses on Art". The Royal Academy transformed into a central nexus where new ideas could be born and explored and it remains a key piece in the British art scene today. The modern Academy plays a major role in promoting both art and artists and these ideas can be traced back to Reynolds' time as the first president.

Reynolds' Key Ideas

Joshua Reynolds' was one of the first advocates of the Grand Manner. He was best known for this style of portraiture, and he played a vital role in the style's definition both through his work and his public lectures. The Grand Manner is a style that seeks to capture the idealised nature of its subject rather than copying it down exactly. To this end, The Grand Manner looks to Classical Art and Renaissance paintings for its poses and compositions. The Grand Manner is not the only style that Reynolds contributed to heavily. At a later stage in his career, Reynolds helped to develop another style of portraiture which he describes as "fancy pictures". This style was also practised by Thomas Gainsborough and it was best-known for featuring children depicted in a classical or pastoral setting.

Joshua Reynolds is often described as an early forerunner of modernism. This is due to his equal opportunities approach to choosing subjects and his decision to make every sitter equally fashionable, regardless of their status. Reynolds also worked to remove details from his compositions that would distract viewers. He wished to keep the viewers' attention focused on the painting's subject.

As a key part of his process, Reynolds experimented heavily with colour. He attempted to paint both with and without every colour in turn. He claims that this led to a great many failures but it also granted him a new level of mastery in that area. In his experimentation, Reynolds mixed a wide variety of materials into his paints to find new colours. Unfortunately, this caused many of the colours to fade more quickly with time. Now, many of the experimental paintings are left with a ghost-like effect.

Influences and Connections

During the course of his career, Joshua Reynolds influenced and was influenced by a number of artists and movements. The key figures that influenced his work included François Boucher, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Peter Paul Rubens, Diego Velazquez and Jean-Antoine Watteau. He would, in turn, have a major impact on the works of John Singleton Copley, Thomas Gainsborough, Giuseppe Marchi, James Northcote and Benjamin West. While he drew inspiration from the Baroque, Renaissance, Realism and Rococo movements, he left his mark on each of these as well save for The Renaissance of course. He contributed most heavily to Grand Manner Portraiture and was its first major practitioner.

Important Artworks

There are three portraits from Reynolds' work that are of particular note and importance.

Self-Portrait Shading the Eyes (c. 1747-49)

Reynolds completed many self-portraits throughout his career and this was one of his earlier works. This picture bears the singular distinction of being the only self-portrait he ever painted that featured the tools of his trade. The significance here is that he did this at a young age displaying his confidence in himself as an artist, even before his eventual fame.

At the time, most portraits displayed their subjects in formal, well-established poses. By contrast, Reynolds painted himself as if he were caught in the middle of the act of painting. His left arm is raised and his torso is twisted, frozen in the act of turning away from the canvas to get a better look at his subject.

Miss Kitty Fisher (1759)

This painting seems to feature an aristocratic woman dressed in a sophisticated manner. However, the sitter was actually a courtesan who was best known for her sexual dalliances with various British aristocrats. In a subtle gesture, Reynolds included a letter on which the words "My dearest Kit" can be seen. A token suggestive of one of her admirers.

Miss Kitty Fisher is exemplary of Reynolds' egalitarian approach in choosing his subjects. This choice would have caused controversy at the time and Reynolds actively courted the shock his choices created. He was keen that these women should be depicted with no shame, staring straight into the eyes of the viewer with pride in their profession and lives.

Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy (1761)

David Garrick is depicted between two women. The first, "comedy", is wearing a low-cut, provocative dress while the second, "tragedy", is dressed in much more conservative fashion. Reynolds loved the theatre greatly and his patronage earned him many friends and contacts while also serving to introduce him to new clients.

The women's different roles and personalities are exemplified through their poses and outfits which highlights Reynolds' heavy use of symbolism in his work. The figures represent their theatrical genres but there are also greater allusions to the classical Greek tale of Hercules. He had to choose between virtue and vice which were usually depicted as figures. Here, Garrick fills the same role though Reynolds is making a more humorous comment on the 18th-century views of heroes.