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Joshua Reynolds

British Artist

Movements and Styles: Neoclassicism, Realism, The Rococo

Born: July 16, 1723 - Plympton, UK

Died: February 23, 1792 - Richmond, UK

Joshua Reynolds Timeline

"We all know how often those masters, who sought after colouring, changed their manner; whilst others, merely from not seeing various modes, acquiesced all their lives in that with which they set out. On the contrary, I tried every effect of colour, and by leaving out every colour in its turn, showed every colour that I could do without it. As I alternately left out every colour, I tried every new colour; and, often, as is well known, I failed."

Summary of Joshua Reynolds

Reynolds was the leading portraitist of the 18th century, invigorating the genre and raising its status to that of religious and historical works. Well-known and respected during his lifetime, he combined the English style of portraiture with ideas drawn from antiquity and the Old Masters to create fashionable, large-scale images of British high society as well as early celebrities including actors and courtesans. His images often included theatrical elements including colorful props and costumes, imagined pastoral landscapes, and irreverent classical symbolism. Reynolds played a central role in founding the Royal Academy of Arts, which gave artists an opportunity to display their work publicly for the first time, and as its first president, he was widely respected for his intellectual ideas and his emphasis on education, a focus that was apparent through his lecture series "Discourses on Art". The Royal Academy became an important breeding ground for new ideas and it is still a bastion of the British art scene today. Its role in promoting art and artists owes a great debt to Reynolds' early involvement and presidential tenure.

Key Ideas

Reynolds was one of the early advocates of the Grand Manner, the style of portraiture for which he became famous and which he helped to define and popularize through his work and his public talks. The Grand Manner borrowed poses and compositions from Classical Art and Renaissance painting and sought to idealize nature rather than copying it directly.
Later in his career, Reynolds coined the term fancy pictures to describe a style of portrait genre painting which he helped to develop. Fancy pictures often featured children in a pastoral or classical setting and the style was also practiced by Thomas Gainsborough.
Reynolds can be seen as an early forerunner of modernism, both in his egalitarian choice of subjects and his fashionable styling of all his sitters regardless of status, but also in his removal of distracting details from his paintings, something that he warned would "dissipate the attention".
Detail of <i>Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond</i> (1758)
Detail of Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond (1758)

Joshua Reynolds was so experimental with color in his portraiture, that he mixed all sorts of materials with the paints to change the pigment; a method that sadly compromised the works’ longevity. As art critic Jonathan Jones said: “Today the ghostly faces of his failed experiments haunt our galleries, like gothic monsters.”

Important Art by Joshua Reynolds Important Art and Analysis

The below artworks are the most important by Joshua Reynolds - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Self-portrait shading the Eyes (c.1747-49)
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Self-portrait shading the Eyes (c.1747-49)

Artwork description & Analysis: This painting is an early self-portrait by Reynolds; a subject he returned to often throughout his career. This was probably painted prior to his trip to Europe and in it he shows himself turning to look towards the viewer, his left hand positioned at his forehead as if helping him to see better (or shading himself from bright light?). In his right hand he holds an artist's palette and a mahlstick. As such, this work bears the distinction of being the only self-portrait in which the artist depicted himself with the tools of his profession. That he did this at a young age, demonstrates his pride in his career and the painting acts as an assertion of himself as an artist and serves as an early indication of his skill as a self-publicist. The painting was originally vertical in format and was later reduced at the top and bottom, probably in the 19th century.

The composition of the piece departs from the norms of portraiture for the period where sitters were portrayed formally and in well-established poses. This is noted by art historian Mark Hallett, who writes that, "very differently, Reynolds depicts himself as a man of action, who, raising his arm to his face as he twists away from his canvas, is caught in the moment of painting". This sense of movement and the use of a non-standard pose can be seen as an early experiment that would inform Reynolds later portraits.

Oil on canvas - National Portrait Gallery, London

Miss Kitty Fisher (1759)
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Miss Kitty Fisher (1759)

Artwork description & Analysis: Miss Kitty Fisher features a woman wearing a fashionable gown, multiple strands of pearls around her neck, and a pearl encrusted tiara in her dark hair. Her head is titled slightly to the left as she looks keenly at the viewer. On the table in the foreground there is a partially unfolded letter which reads "My dearest Kit" and is dated "2 June 1759". Reynolds painted Fisher on a number of occasions and at first glance, one sees a portrait of an aristocratically-styled woman who is the picture of decorum and sophistication. The sitter, however, was in fact a courtesan who was famous in British society for her sexual alliances with a number of high-profile aristocrats. Reynolds subtly draws attention to her reputationby the inclusion of the letter, apparently from one of her admirers.

The work demonstrates Reynolds' eclectic choice of subjects, including those that would court controversy and shock the public. In fact, Fisher was not the only courtesan that he painted, the well-known Nelly O'Brien also sat for him multiple times. The way Fisher is depicted can be seen as a forerunner to modernism. While the subject of courtesans and prostitutes had long been depicted in art, here Reynolds does so in a new way, presenting a woman who would be known by the viewing public, boldly staring out at and confronting the viewer in an unapologetic fashion. She displays no shame about her profession. It is this same type of gaze that, years later, would cause outrage in Edouard Manet's paintings Olympia (1856) and The Luncheon on the Grass (1862).

Oil on canvas - The National Trust, Petworth House, UK

Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy (1761)
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Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy (1761)

Artwork description & Analysis: David Garrick, the famous actor, playwright, and theater manager is depicted in a pastoral setting between a blonde woman wearing a provocatively low-cut dress (comedy) and a more conservatively dressed woman in a blue robe (tragedy). Reynolds was a great admirer of the theater and his patronship also helped him to maintain his circle of contacts and gain introductions to new clients. He was a close friend of Garrick and this image references Garrick's profession as an actor showing him being pulled between the two genres of theater. This idea of a person represented or divided by different elements was utilized more than once by Reynolds and can also be seen in paintings such as Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse (1783-84) in which the figures of Terror and Fear lurk in the shadows.

The clothes and stylized poses of the women reflect their different roles and this is an example of Reynolds' widespread use of symbolism in portraiture. Not only do the figures embody their respective acting genres, however, but the painting also takes on a wider allusion, comparing Garrick's theatrical choice to that of Hercules. In classical mythology, Hercules had to choose between the paths of Virtue and Vice, often represented as figures in allegorical works of the period. In comparing Garrick with Hercules, Reynolds makes a humorous comment on 18th century concepts of heroes and heroism. Whilst this lighthearted approach was appreciated by many, it was seen as flippant and verging on disrespectful to the traditions of classical art by others, notably the American-British artist Benjamin West.

Oil on canvas - The National Trust, UK

More Joshua Reynolds Artwork and Analysis:

The Strawberry Girl (1773) Self-portrait as a Deaf Man (1775) St John the Baptist in the Wilderness (1776) Frances, Countess of Lincoln (1781-84)

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Joshua Reynolds
Interactive chart with Joshua Reynolds's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart
Show influences

Artists

François BoucherFrançois Boucher
Jean-Baptiste Greuze
Peter Paul RubensPeter Paul Rubens
Diego VelazquezDiego Velazquez
Jean-Antoine WatteauJean-Antoine Watteau

Personal Contacts

Edmund Burke
Richard Edgcumbe
Commodore Augustus Keppel
Richard Seymour-Conway

Movements

The BaroqueThe Baroque
RenaissanceRenaissance
RealismRealism
The RococoThe Rococo
Influences on Artist
Influences on Artist
Joshua Reynolds
Joshua Reynolds
Years Worked: 1740 - 1789
Influenced by Artist
Influenced by Artist

Artists

John Singleton Copley
Thomas GainsboroughThomas Gainsborough
Giuseppe Marchi
James Northcote
Benjamin WestBenjamin West

Personal Contacts

Edmund Burke
Richard Edgcumbe
Commodore Augustus Keppel
Richard Seymour-Conway

Movements

The BaroqueThe Baroque
Grand Manner Portraiture
RealismRealism
The RococoThe Rococo

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kate Stephenson

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kate Stephenson
Available from:
First published on 22 Jul 2019. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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