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Joshua Reynolds - Biography and Legacy

British Artist

Movements and Styles: Neoclassicism, Realism, The Rococo

Born: July 16, 1723 - Plympton, United Kingdom

Died: February 23, 1792 - Richmond, United Kingdom

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."

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Biography of Joshua Reynolds

Childhood and Education

Joshua Reynolds was one of eleven children born to Theophilia Potter and Samuel Reynolds. His father was a clergyman and master of Plympton Free Grammar School and had previously been a fellow of Balliol College, Oxford. Consequently, Reynolds grew up in a comfortable and educated household and he was encouraged to pursue both his academic and artistic interests.

Early Training

Reynolds art training began in 1740, at the of age seventeen, when he traveled to London to begin an apprenticeship with the fashionable portrait painter Thomas Hudson. After three years of study, Reynolds began working as a portrait artist in London and Devon. In an attempt to further his artistic development, and following in the tradition of many other artists of the time, in 1749, Reynolds left for a multi-year trip to Europe to study the works of the Old Masters. He visited cities including Florence, Naples, Rome, and Paris, and painted portraits of the wealthy men and women he met there. Whilst in Rome, Reynolds caught a severe cold which left him partially deaf and laid the foundations for hearing problems later in his life. As a result of the incident he began to carry a small ear trumpet which appears in some of his portraits.

Mature Period

Joshua Reynolds, <i>Self-Portrait</i> (circa 1750) Oil on canvas, Collection of Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut
Joshua Reynolds, Self-Portrait (circa 1750) Oil on canvas, Collection of Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut

Upon returning to London in the fall of 1752, he established what would become a highly successful portrait business. Besides great talent, Reynolds' success was due, in no small part, to his easy nature which allowed him to establish friendships with important people and gave him access to upper-class society. An early example of this was his relationship with Commodore Augustus Keppel who, not only helped to sponsor Reynolds' trip to Europe but who also introduced him to future sitters, including, the Marchioness of Tavistock and the Duke of Cumberland. According to historian Richard Wendorf, "these important ties, forged so early, held him in good stead throughout his career, often producing a ripple effect in polite society as one introduction, one commission, led to yet another".

The growth of Reynolds' reputation as a portrait artist allowed him to move to a larger house in Leicester Fields (now Leicester Square) in 1760. Here, he built a studio which he opened to the public so they could see his work as well as his growing collection of paintings from other artists. It was also at this time that Reynolds began to take on pupils and apprentices. While some such as Giuseppe Marchi stayed with him for many years, the relationship he had with these young men has been the subject of much discussion. One student, James Northcote, an artist and one of Reynolds' earliest biographers, described his lack of interest in his students, noting that "He never conversed. If he made an observation, he did it in a hasty, half-pettish manner, and seemed to employ as few words as he could." Reynolds himself often expressed concern about students, once stating, "indeed I have never been sure, that I understood perfectly what they meant, and was not without some suspicion that they had not themselves very distinct ideas of the object of their enquiry". Whilst he may have distanced himself from his students, his relationships with fellow artists was the opposite and he developed lifelong friendships with many of his contemporaries including Angelica Kauffman and Gilbert Stuart; both of whom painted portraits of Reynolds.

Archibald Robertson, <i>Sir Joshua Reynolds</i> (1786-1791) Ivory miniature painting, Collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
Archibald Robertson, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1786-1791) Ivory miniature painting, Collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York

Indeed, Reynolds had an active social life with a large and welcoming circle of friends, stating that, "everybody has their taste. I love the correspondence of viva voce over a bottle with a great deal of noise and a great deal of nonsense." His large dinner parties were legendary and according to Wendorf, "Reynolds enjoyed inviting lively guests who were often of very different opinions" and he "ensured that this conversation would tumble forth by insisting on an unusual informality and even an element of social chaos at the table". He also belonged to many clubs including one centered around gambling and another around literary pursuits.

A lifelong bachelor, it is believed that Reynolds may have had numerous affairs with wealthy women, some of whom were his sitters. He did not live alone, however, and instead employed his sisters and, later, his nieces as housekeepers. It has been suggested that Reynolds was difficult to live with and a number of historians have written of his demanding nature with his family and his stingy manner when it came to paying bills and fulfilling household needs.

Statue of Sir Joshua Reynolds in the court of the Royal Academy, London, United Kingdom
Statue of Sir Joshua Reynolds in the court of the Royal Academy, London, United Kingdom

Reynolds' success resulted in many honors. In 1768 when King George III brought into existence the British Royal Academy of Arts, Reynolds was one of the 34 founding members which also included Thomas Gainsborough, Benjamin West, and Angelica Kauffman. Reynolds was elected as the first president and in this role he began to deliver his famous Discourses on Art lectures about the practice of art. A year later he was granted a knighthood on April 21, 1769. Interestingly, despite this honor by the King, Reynolds begrudged the fact that he had never been asked to paint the King's portrait and therefore made it a condition of his acceptance of the Presidency of the Royal Academy that he was allowed to paint the King and Queen.

Late Period

Whilst continuing to create many of the Grand Manner portraits for which he is best known, Reynolds also developed a new style of work which became popular. These portraits featured children in highly stylized, almost theatrical settings and poses and became known as fancy pictures. In 1778 the first seven of his Discourses were compiled and published. He was also appointed as Principal Painter in Ordinary to King George III in 1784, after the death of the King's favorite painter Allan Ramsay, but was not asked to paint anything in this role, a situation that he resented bitterly. Writing to James Boswell and referring to his inauguration as court painter, Reynolds noted that: "If I had known what a shabby miserable place it is, I would not have asked for it; besides as things have turned out I think a certain person is not worth speaking to, nor speaking of". This last barbed comment is probably a reference to the King himself.

One of Reynolds <i>fancy pictures</i>, <i>The Age of Innocence</i> (c.1788)
One of Reynolds fancy pictures, The Age of Innocence (c.1788)

In 1789 Reynolds was involved in the Bonomi affair at the Royal Academy. The scandal involved his proposal of Giuseppe Bonomi for election to the Academy and for the position of Professor of Perspective. Many members, however, were opposed to the appointment of an Italian to the position and questioned Reynolds's motives, thinking that he was acting with the purpose of pleasing one of his patrons. Reynolds resigned from the Academy in anger but the public backlash over his leaving was great and at the request of the King he returned to office and served as President for the rest of his life.

Reynolds's health declined sharply in his last years. He struggled with hearing loss and and then devastatingly for an artist, in 1789, he lost the vision in one of his eyes which forced him to stop painting. Three years later he died as a result of liver failure.

The Legacy of Joshua Reynolds

Joshua Reynolds was hugely prolific, producing over 2000 portraits in his career. He is considered one of Britain's greatest artists, revolutionizing the art of portraiture and raising its status. He had a profound impact on both his contemporaries and successors and his style was emulated by artists including Hugh Barron, John Singleton Copley, and James Northcote.

Reynolds demonstrated that portraiture could be more than simply the act of formally capturing a sitter but rather a highly staged and entertaining work that spoke of a person's character and livelihood. Additionally, by painting courtesans and actors in the same style as wealthy aristocrats and patrons, he expanded the notion of what subjects could be worthy of depiction in fine art and in doing so he preempted the ideas of modernism. As such, his paintings laid the foundation for more recent risk-taking portrait painters, which are now reflected in the inventions of luminaries such as Lucian Freud and John Currin.

Through his role in founding the Royal Academy and his subsequent, life-long presidency, Reynolds had a significant impact on theories and education practices within the art world. His series of fifteen lecture, Discourses in Art are still in print today and have been widely translated, heavily influencing artists such as JMW Turner. Conversely, William Blake strongly disagreed with some of Reynolds ideas, and used his antipathy as his basis to form his own radical views.

Most Important Art

Zoom imageJoshua Reynolds Famous Art

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

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 (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.
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Joshua Reynolds Artworks in Focus: