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One of the advantages of being an artist is that it allows you to rub shoulders with a better class of people. While one no longer has to be wealthy to afford good art, a certain amount of discretionary income seems to be a prerequisite for acquiring fine art, even today. And of course, the better artist one is, the better class of clients one attracts (read wealthier). This was certainly well entrenched in the mind of an aspiring teenage artist named Joshua Reynolds as he completed a four-year apprenticeship in the London portrait factory of Thomas Hudson in only two years. Thereupon, he set himself up in Plympton, Devonshire, England near a royal naval base where he painted portraits of young officers while their ships were in port. He was at best, mediocre, his work ranging from poor to good though even his best work was unexceptional.

But the young man was nothing if not doggedly determined. Born of middle-classed parentage in 1723, Reynolds was the son of a clergyman who moonlighted as a schoolmaster. He painted his first portrait at the age of twelve on sailcloth using paint from the local shipyard. His formal education ended in his early teens when he left his father's tutelage for London. At the age of 23, he hitched a ride on a British naval vessel to Italy where he studied intently the work of Raphael and other Italian masters. In returning to England, he shrewdly began painting portraits of children of doting English aristocrats. Although he was a bachelor all his life, his work from this period indicates a certain "way with children." The mischief and merriment he captured in the faces seems to light up every one of his juvenile depictions.

But Reynolds longed for better things. In 1760, with the ascension of George III to the throne, some 69 London painters held a sort of English version of the Paris Salon in which Reynolds' portrait of a dashing young Admiral, Augustus, Viscount Keppel, striding along a stormy seashore stood out amongst the 130 other works exhibited. It served to topple Allan Ramsay as the leading painter of London society. The pose in the painting is based quite literally on the Roman statue known as the Apollo Belvedere which Reynolds had studied in Rome. With this success, he acquired a mansion in the fashionable London suburb of Leicester Fields and was soon turning out over 150 portraits a year, employing a staff of assistants to paint backgrounds and clothes in the portraits. It wasn't quite the Thomas Hudson portrait factory but it was close. Reynolds cultivated a number of literary friends who helped him acquire the classical education he'd missed as a child. They also powered a PR machine to augment Reynolds' already shameless knack for self-promotion. The stature he acquired later came in handy as he helped found the British Royal Academy of art, which he personally ran for some twenty years until his death in 1788. Reynolds is credited with being most responsible for lifting the status of English art and artists to what it is today.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
22 October 1998

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