When Reynolds painted Commodore Keppel, he did something entirely new in English portraits of men. Instead of merely creating a likeness, the usual practice, he cast his subject in a heroic mould. He put Keppel in a dramatic setting - a rocky shore after a shipwreck - and posed him with the stride and outstretched arm of the Apollo Belvedere, a celebrated classical statue he had seen in Italy, and almost identical to the pose that Allan Ramsay used earlier for his portrait of Norman MacLeod.
There is no doubt that of the two Apollo-based portraits Reynolds' is better than Ramsay's is. MacLeod of MacLeod seems motionless; his facial expression lacks purpose and his outstretched hand is a weak gesture without meaning. Commodore Keppel, by contrast, is in purposeful motion. His face shows determination, his left hand grips the hilt of his sword, and his right arm is extended in a gesture of firm command. He is heroic while MacLeod is not. Reynolds proved that by applying his version of the old master's style to a classical model known to all educated Britons he could make his countrymen appear like glorious heroes. Ramsay was toppled from his place as society's favourite portraitist.