- Sir Joshua Reynolds
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Sir Joshua Reynolds

"I would rather be an apothecary than an ordinary painter, but if I could be bound to an eminent master, I would choose the latter."

Born 16 July in 1723, Joshua Reynold's family were substantial burghers in the small town of Plympton, in Devonshire, on the south-west coast of England. His father was a clergyman-schoolmaster and other relatives were tradesmen in the town. Joshua was a serious, studious boy, and when he was about 17 his father favoured apprenticing him to a local apothecary. Joshua had other ideas. For years he had been drawing, copying prints in his father's library and studying a book called Essay on the Theory of Painting by the British artist Jonathan Richardson, a work that fired his ambition to become a painter. At the age of 12 he had already painted a portrait of the Reverend Thomas Smart on sailcloth, using shipyard paints. It was not much of a portrait, but his father agreed that it showed talent. So when it came time to decide whether Joshua was to learn the apothecary's trade or seek a career in art, a well-to-do friend of the family, a Mr. Craunch, was called in to evaluate the boy's efforts and give his opinion. After due consideration Mr. Craunch thought that it might be arranged for one of London's best-known portrait painters, Thomas Hudson, to look at young Joshua's work. Hudson, whose many assistants and assembly line methods enabled him to turn out competent likenesses by the dozen, was a native of Devonshire and often returned there to visit. If he saw promise in Joshua, perhaps he would take him on as an apprentice; in that event Mr. Craunch agreed to pay for Reynold's upkeep and training.

In this way, Joshua Reynolds became a painter. In his own mind he soon saw himself as more than a painter, more even than a great painter. He would dedicate himself to the task of raising the prestige of British painters so that they would be accepted in aristocratic society, as leading men of letters already were. It was a large ambition for a young artist, but he never abandoned the goal, and to a remarkable extent he attained it.

In Hudson's "portrait factory" in London, where he entered a four-year apprenticeship, Joshua mastered the mechanical tricks of the trade so quickly that after about two years Hudson agreed to let him begin an independent career as a professional. Reynolds then left London to paint portraits at Plympton, but upon the death of his father in 1746 he set up housekeeping with his two unmarried sisters at Plymouth Dock (now Devonport). In making this move Joshua knew exactly what he was doing. To become a fashionable painter and raise his calling to high social status, he realised that he must make aristocratic friends, and Plymouth Dock, a Navy base, was a good place to begin. In those days nearly all British Navy officers belonged to the aristocracy.

For nearly three years Joshua worked doggedly, producing portraits that ranged from poor to good; the best were in no way extraordinary. He painted the local gentry and a good many naval officers, and his pleasant, earnest personality made many friends. But the big opportunity he was waiting for did not come until 1749 when a squadron commanded by a young nobleman, the Honourable Augustus Keppel, put into Plymouth to repair storm damage. Reynolds painted the commodore's portrait, which turned out to be the best he had done so far, and the two men became fast friends. When the squadron was seaworthy again, Keppel invited the artist to sail with him to the Mediterranean.

Reynolds left Keppel's ship at the Balearic island of Minorca, then a British stronghold. There he painted enough portraits to finance another step in the career he had planned for himself - a pilgrimage to Italy, the fountainhead of European art. He would study the old masters, especially Raphael. Then he would return to England and convince his countrymen that he could not only paint in the grand Italian manner but that he could do it more successfully than any of his British predecessors. He landed at Leghorn in January 1750 and headed for Rome, where he stayed for two years before visiting Florence, Bologna, Parma and Venice.

In Italy Reynolds did very little painting. He had not come to learn technique, which he felt he already knew. His program was analogous to that of the scholars of his period who read and reread Greek and Latin authors in order to stock their minds with apt quotations from Homer or Virgil and allusions to events in ancient history. He would cram his mind instead with images from Italy's glorious tradition of art. By spending hours in palaces and religious buildings where classical statues and paintings by the old masters were on display, Reynolds memorised faces, expressions, gestures, the arrangement of points of interest, and the uses of background light and shade to enhance the effect of figures in the foreground.

No doubt Reynolds would have liked to return to England to paint famous scenes from the Bible or classical mythology, as the old masters had done. But he was a practical man, and he knew only too well that such "history pictures" by British artists would not sell. Wealthy Englishmen paid large sums for pictures in the grand Italian manner by Continental artists, but from native British painters they still bought almost nothing but portraits. Reynold's plan, therefore, was to use his own adaptation of the grand Italian styles of history painting in doing likenesses of English sitters. If his idea met with success, he hoped it would influence other British painters. Thus England's aristocrats might gradually come to recognise that native-born artists were capable of creating fine works other than portraits and accept them on a higher level.

In 1753 Reynolds was back in London to put his carefully thought out plan to the test. His first picture to attract public notice was a full-length portrait of his friend Commodore Keppel striding along a storm-lashed shore. It was no accident that the commodore's pose almost exactly duplicated that of the famous ancient Greek statue, the Apollo Belvedere. Nor was it an accident that the commodore's pose was almost identical to the one that Allan Ramsay - who was then the leading painter in London and who had also studied in Italy - used earlier for his well-known portrait of the Scottish chieftain Norman MacLeod. By painting a portrait similar to Ramsay's, Reynolds intended to demonstrate that he was the better artist, with a new and more vibrant way of bringing the grand Italian styles to British portraiture.

He succeeded exactly as he had planned. Augustus, Viscount Keppel won spectacular acclaim and put Reynolds in enormous demand as a portrait painter. By 1755 the demand for Reynold's work was so great that he had painted more than 100 portraits. Not all were heroic or attempted to be; many were mere "heads", which cost less than a full-length likeness. But when Reynolds got a commission for a full-length portrait, especially when the sitter was a high-ranking nobleman, he usually painted him in a pose adapted from a well-known classical or renaissance model.

Few people in 18th century Britain regarded this practice of using the creations of the old masters to glorify English sitters as a form of artistic plagiarism. Indeed it was admired and applauded. While envious rivals of Reynolds sometimes whispered that he was making a fortune out of the concepts of other artists, the critics, connoisseurs and picture buyers did not see it that way. They agreed with Reynolds that he was naturalising on British soil the noble tradition of the grand Italian style.

This early success made Reynolds London's leading painter. He had brought to British painting a new versatility, but to his mind this was not enough. To accomplish the rest of his declared purpose of raising the social prestige of British painters, it would be necessary to set an example for them. Now he must make influential friends in the highest ranks and move conspicuously in the best society. As his fortunes improved, he advanced to successively larger houses where he could entertain impressively and he made a special effort to cultivate men of letters, who had already succeeded in elevating their social status.

His most important conquest was Dr. Samuel Johnson, the acknowledged ruler of London's literary life. Johnson was fourteen years older than Reynolds was, but the two became lifelong friends, and Reynolds often declared that Johnson was his source of wisdom and inspiration. Reynolds was a middle-class provincial with no formal education beyond his father's grammar school, and Johnson's endless conversation, full of classical allusions and rolling, latinised sentences, was as good as an Oxford education. Other intimates of Reynolds included Oliver Goldsmith - poet, novelist and playwright - and Edmund Burke, a leading statesman as well as a man of letters. Encouraged and perhaps coached by his literary friends, Reynolds began to write articles on art and aesthetics for the Idler, a literary magazine.

Business continued to flood into his studio. In order to handle the deluge - sometimes more than 150 portraits in a year - he employed a good deal of help. In the manner of Hudson, but never as mechanically, Reynolds planned and blocked out the portraits and painted the faces and other crucial parts himself. Under his watchful supervision his assistants did the rest, especially the clothes and backgrounds.

Shortly after the accession of George III, in 1760, Reynolds bought a large house in Leicester Fields (now Leicester Square), in the most fashionable part of London. There he built a splendid gallery to show his pictures. The mansion in Leicester Fields became one of London's leading intellectual and social centres. There Reynolds kept open house, limited of course, to people of standing. To the house came the eminent statesmen of the day, the most famous writers, musicians and philosophers, the nobles and aristocrats, the most dazzling beauties of society and the theatre. Few painters came; although Reynolds had set himself up a model for other British artists to emulate and was kind to artists in need of a helping hand, he never allowed himself to be close friends with a painter who might become a rival.

No 18th century British artist was as fiercely dedicated to the cause of British painting as Reynolds was. Curiously enough, the snobbish and sometimes pompous Reynolds harboured a modesty about his own talent - and therein lay his strength. He began his career believing that he was an average painter who could rise to greatness by studying classical artists and European masters and applying their themes, compositions, settings and even their costumes to portraiture. This conviction became the driving force in his crusade to link British painting, which had little tradition of its own, to important European art thorough the ages. It also fuelled his own work; while striving to duplicate the grand manner of the past, he never stopped trying to improve as a painter. And his range of creativity suggests that he achieved excellence despite his theories rather than because of them.

In 1768, when the Royal Academy of Art was founded to promote the fine arts in Britain, Reynolds was a natural choice for President. The Royal Academy was not only a lobbying body for artists and the home of an immensely important annual selling exhibition, but it was also the official art school. For the next twenty years, Reynolds combined his practice as a painter with the task of running the Academy. In 1769, taking his pedagogic functions very seriously, he delivered the first of his annual Discourses to the students of the academy in which he set forth the idealistic, moralising principles of academic art. His authority in the Academy was paramount and with his fifteen Discourses (delivered over the next two decades) he became the official spokesman of the Academy's thinking, and to an extent was personally responsible for developing its theory. The lectures were later published as The Discourse on Art and have become the classic expression of the academic doctrine of the Grand Manner.

In 1764 Reynolds founded the Literary Club, which included essayist and critic Samuel Johnson, actor David Garrick, statesman Edmund Burke, writer Oliver Goldsmith, writer James Boswell, and dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan. By this time, Reynolds had done more than any other artist had to raise the public profile and the social standing of the fine arts in Britain. In 1769 he was knighted by George III, and in 1784 he succeeded Allan Ramsay as painter to the king.

Reynolds is credited with more than 2000 portraits. Unfortunately, his use of bitumen (or asphalt) and experimental pigments and methods made some of his colours fade prematurely. Reynolds ceased to paint, because of failing eyesight, in the summer of 1789 and he died in London on the 23rd of February 1792.

contributed by Gifford, Katya


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