Skip to content

Plympton, Devon 1723–1792 London

The English portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds was the most influential of all British artists both as a painter and a power in the art world. English artists could only make a living with portraits or landscape. Reynolds, making the best of it, aspired to raise the status of portraiture to the level of history painting by ennobling it through the language of the antique and the Italian old masters. This ideal was supported by a series of lectures called Discourses. Reynolds was the first president of the Royal Academy and an intimate of the leading men and women of his day, including Dr. Johnson, Burke, Mrs. Thrale, and David Garrick. His chief rival Gainsborough (1727–1788) hit the nail on the head when he said, "damn him, how various he is". His technique was sometimes flawed and his sitters can look too pale because the reds in their cheeks have faded.

Reynolds was born in Devon and in 1740 was apprenticed to the dull but fashionable portraitist Thomas Hudson (1701–79). In 1749 he was able to travel to Italy. Here, he spent two years in Rome soaking up the antique and the Italian grand manner. He developed a particular admiration for Michelangelo, Correggio and Titian, recording his impressions in notebooks. Returning to London he achieved immediate success, with 5 or 6 sittings per day. One of his earliest masterpieces was Commodore Keppel who had facilitated his trip to Italy. In line with his determination to boost the status of portraiture, Keppel is shown in the pose of the famous antique sculpture the Apollo Belvedere. In his Duchess of Hamilton, the sitter's cool poise and generalized drapery also evoke Classical sculpture while in Three Ladies adorning a Therm of Hymen, Poussin and the Roman Baroque are the sources. Though he was thought to do better with men, his female portraits have no lack of glamour, for example Lady Sunderland whose dress is as fashionable as any by Gainsborough. Reynolds can be cunning in his indications of social status. The Ladies Waldegrave was really painted to advertise the sitters on the marriage market, so he made them look diligent and domestic as well as elegant. Nelly O'Brien and Kitty Fisher, on the other hand, have a more come-hither look, appropriate to a courtesan. Reynolds was very good at children, notably Miss Bowles cuddling her pet dog, a charming Corregiosity. 

Reynolds is at his best when painting people who have achieved something. The General Burgoyne (Frick Collection, New York) is a targeted portrayal of the qualities required in a general: calm assessment and the ability to see beyond the horizon and be prepared for emergencies. His Prince of Wales with Charger (not perhaps so high an achiever except in his own estimation) presents him as a military hero and shows the influence of Rubens whom Reynolds had studied in Flanders. A one off is the South Sea islander Omai, nobly portrayed in Enlightenment fashion without racial prejudice. Predictably he painted his own circle of friends: Dr. Johnson, the short-sighted critic and poet Baretti, the novelist Sterne looking dark and enigmatic, and in a more light-hearted vein, Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy. In his Self-Portrait with a bust of Michelangelo he sees himself as another Rembrandt. His subject pictures are naturally far fewer. The largest and best is the Infant Hercules Strangling the Serpents painted for Catherine the Great of Russia, where the chiaroscuro is Rembrandtesque and the composition baroque.


Top Auction Results for Sir Joshua Reynolds

Portrait of Omai standing in a landscape, wearing robes and a headdress
Sold for £10,313,500 ($14,621,855)
London, Sotheby’s, 29 November 2001, Important British and Irish Paintings, Watercolours and Drawings, lot 12

Portrait of Lady Frances Marsham, later Countess of Romney (1755-1795)
Sold for £4,786,500 ($8,197,465)
London, Christie’s, 8 July 2014, Old Master & British Paintings Evening Sale

Portrait of Mrs. Baldwin
Sold for £3,365,600 ($6,088,278)
London, Sotheby’s, 1 July 2004, Important British Pictures


<< View more artists

Back To Top