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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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Born 16 July 1723, Sir Joshua Reynolds was an English painter who established an early and specialised career in the art of portrait painting. This biography examines his life and career in great detail.

Named by British American art critic John Russell as one of the major and leading European painters of the 18th century is it fair to say that Reynolds has carved out a piece of art history for himself that will always be filled with his name and his name alone. Reynolds was an early adopter of the 'Grand Style' of painting, which is a style that is dedicated to bringing out the imperfections in subjects and idealising it instead. A founding member and first president of the Royal Academy of Arts and eventually knighted by George II in 1769, Reynold's life and career are certainly of note from beginning to end. Let us take a closer look at the biography of Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Born in Plympton, Devon in 1723, Joshua Reynolds was the third son of a school headmaster, Rev. Samuel Reynolds. Although Reynolds' teacher father was a former student of Balliol College in Oxford, he declined to send any of his sons to university which is interesting to note and fairly unusual for the time, as many academic fathers would assume the same for their offspring. Many art historians believe that Reynolds' earliest influence can be traced back to his elder sister Mary Palmer, an author in her own right but also a girl who showed a talent for drawing at a young age, something that her younger brother picked up on. It was, in fact, his sister Mary who paid the required sum of £60 to portrait painter Thomas Hudson to take young Joshua on as a pupil and apprentice. This began his education in the world of fine art.

Reynolds remained under the apprenticeship of Hudson until 1743, at which point he began to work as a portrait painter in what is now known as Devonport. In 1749, Reynolds embarked on a big and bold adventure, travelling to Europe with Augustus Keppel. Admiral Viscount Keppel was a close friend of Reynolds and a celebrated naval commander, whom Reynolds would later paint. He based himself in Rome for two years, a time that he devoted to honing his craft and studying the masterpieces of the Old Masters of Italian art. On route back to England, Reynolds passed through iconic art cities such as Bologna, Florence, and Venice, absorbing the artistic culture and developing an appreciation for the emphasis of colour and the effects of light and shading that would soon become trademark elements of his own key works. In many ways, the works of Joshua Reynolds are most reminiscent of the Venetian style.

Reynolds found himself back in London by 1753, and it was in England's capital city that he would spend the rest of his life. He was an instant success and by 1755 has amassed a studio complete with assistants to aid him in the execution of numerous high profile portrait commissions. He benefitted from some illustrious company including the likes of the renowned actor Sir David Garrick, Dr. Samuel Johnson the writer, and statesman Edmund Burke, all of whom he would paint. Some of the most notable portrait from this fruitful time include the aforementioned Augustus Keppel (1753-54), Lord Cathcart (1753/54), Lord Ludlow (1755) and Nelly O'Brien (1760-62).

A distinct alteration in style can be perceived in Reynolds' work from 1760 onwards, with a turn to more self-conscious and classical techniques. This can be attributed to the influence of the classical Baroque painters that hailed from the 17th century Bolognese school, with trademarks including a more rigid pattern in the posing and clothing of portrait subjects. It is hard to believe given the rich painting talents in the preceding years, but before 1760 there had been no public exhibitions of contemporary artists in the whole of London. This changed for the better when Reynolds headed up the Society of Artists, a group of 34 painters and architects.

After seeking patronage from the very top, King George III, the Royal Academy of Arts was founded in 1768. Although he received a knighthood in 1769, Reynolds was not a favourite artist of the court and he only painted the king once. This portrait was commissioned in 1780 to celebrate the opening of the Royal Academy's first official home, Somerset House. From 1769 onwards, almost all of Reynolds' most important works were displayed within the academy, including Ugolino (1773), Master Crewe as Henry VIII (1775-76), Family of the Duke of Marlborough (1777) and Lady Caroline Scott as 'Winter' (1778).

In 1781, Reynolds visited both Holland and Flanders to study the work of the great Flemish Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens. This experience heralded yet another change in the painter's style in the way that texture of his canvas surface becomes far, far richer. This can be seen particularly in his 1786 portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire and her daughter.

Reynolds imparted his knowledge through a series of lectures at the Academy. The 15 lectures were published in essay form as the Discourses on Art. He delivered the first lecture in 1769 and the last in 1790. He expounded his theory of the "grand manner" of painting in which artists should be influenced by Renaissance and classical art and should look to idealising nature rather than copying it. Interestingly, Reynolds considered that epic, historic scenes were the "highest" genre of art, even though his collection of works has few examples.

It has been suggested by many that the partial deafness Reynold's developed as a result of illness in Rome may have given him a purer perspective on the characters of is portrait subjects, with the lack of one sense making his eyes an even greater and sharper asset in compensation. Unfortunately, in 1782 Reynold's suffered a paralytic stroke, leaving him incapable of producing works anywhere near his previous quality and quantity. By 1789, his eyesight too had begun to fail. Joshua Reynolds died February 23rd, 1792, aged 68. His body was laid to rest in London's St. Paul's Cathedral, a testament to the lasting impact that he would have on the worlds of art and culture. In 1931, a statue of Reynolds by Albert Drury was installed in the entrance hall of the Royal Academy.