Joshua Reynolds

Born: 1723
Died: 1792

Occupation: Painter and Art Theorist

Challenges overcome: Visual Impairment

Successes, Achievements & Awards:

Sir Joshua Reynolds,  portrait and history painter and art theorist, was born on 16 July 1723 at Plympton, Devon, the seventh of ten (or possibly eleven) children of Samuel Reynolds (1681–1745), schoolmaster, and his wife, Theophila Potter (1688–1756) of Great Torrington, Devon. Joshua Reynolds’s maternal grandfather was Humphrey Potter, rector of Nymet Rowland and curate-in-charge of Lostwithiel, his great-grandfather being the eminent mathematician the Revd Thomas Baker.

Joshua Reynolds’s first recorded portrait, made at the age of twelve, dates from 1735. The subject was a local clergyman named Thomas Smart, tutor to Joshua Reynolds’s boyhood friend Richard Edgcumbe.

It was also suggested that Joshua Reynolds might train under his father as an apothecary, Joshua himself declaring that he would rather be an apothecary than ‘an ordinary painter’. However, in the spring of 1740 it was agreed that Joshua should be bound to the Devonian artist Thomas Hudson for a period of four years, rather than a full seven-year term as stipulated by the artists’ guild, the Painter–Stainers’ Company.

Thomas Hudson lived and worked in Newman’s Row, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, although he still spent a good deal of time catering to his native west country clientele. Joshua Reynolds’s daily routine at this time involved running errands, preparing canvases, painting accessories in portraits, and perhaps even making replicas of Hudson’s pictures. He also made drawings from casts of antique statuary, including one of the Laocoön. Even so, in later life Joshua Reynolds regretted that he had not received a proper academic training, lacking ‘the facility of drawing the naked figure, which an artist ought to have’. In 1821 over fifty of his academic studies from both the male and the female figure were sold at auction. In terms of sheer numbers alone these drawings suggest that Joshua Reynolds had been in the habit of drawing from the living model, probably at the St Martin’s Lane Academy.

By the autumn of 1743 Joshua Reynolds was dividing his portrait practice between London and Plymouth Dock. He made the most of the opportunities presented, his father reporting in January 1744 that he ‘has drawn twenty already, and has ten more bespoke’ .In order to expedite the process, he briefly went into partnership with an unnamed artist who painted the bodies while Joshua Reynolds concentrated on the heads. 
By 1747 Joshua Reynolds was spending extended periods in London, now maintaining a studio in apartments on the west side of St Martin’s Lane. Little is known about his personal life at that time. His friends included the painters Robert and Simon Pine and John Wilkes, the radical. In November 1748 the Universal Magazine included John Reynolds’s name in a list of fifty-seven ‘Painters of our own nation now living, many of whom have distinguished themselves by their performances, and who are justly deemed eminent masters’. Of those named only Thomas Gainsborough was younger. In 1748 Joshua Reynolds was also commissioned by the corporation of Plympton to paint portraits of Lieutenant Paul Henry Ourry (Saltram, Devon) and Commodore George Edgcumbe, younger brother of Joshua Reynolds’s boyhood friend Richard Edgcumbe. Through Richard Edgcumbe, Joshua Reynolds became acquainted with Augustus Keppel, a younger son of the second earl of Albemarle, who on 26 April 1749 made an unscheduled stop at Plymouth on board the Centurion. Two weeks later, on 11 May, Reynolds set sail with Keppel for the Mediterranean.

In January 1750 Reynolds left Port Mahón for Italy, and by Easter was in Rome. There he set about making copies of old-master paintings. They included a small copy of Raphael’s School of Athens and a full-scale copy of Guido Reni’s St Michael, which Joshua Reynolds recorded having made in Santa Maria della Concezione between 30 May and 10 June, and which his niece later presented to George IV. Joshua Reynolds spent many hours in the Vatican scrutinizing the work of Michelangelo and Raphael’s frescoes in the Stanze. During the 1750s Joshua Reynolds began to experiment increasingly with his painting technique, employing an unusually wide range of pigments, oils, and varnishes. While these experiments often resulted in brilliantly coloured and highly textured works, the instability of certain pigments (notably red lake, carmine, and orpiment) and his incautious combining of incompatible materials resulted in fading and cracking. These shortcomings did not appear to concern Reynolds, who, when challenged, retorted, ‘all good pictures crack’. At this time Joshua Reynolds also began to tender out the painting of costume in his portraits to professional drapery painters, notably Peter Toms and George Roth, who also painted drapery for Hudson. By now Joshua Reynolds was extremely busy, producing over 100 portraits a year. And as he became more successful so his prices rose accordingly. In 1753 he charged 48 guineas for a full-length portrait; by 1759 the price had risen to 100 guineas, and by 1764 to 150 guineas.

In the summer of 1760 Reynolds purchased a lease on a house at 47 Leicester Square, then among the most fashionable residential areas of the capital. (It was subsequently converted into auction rooms and demolished in 1937.) Joshua Reynolds remained there for the rest of his life. He marked his arrival with a grand ball, and set about completely refurbishing the property, adding a series of studios and a picture gallery to the rear of the premises where he displayed his paintings alongside his growing collection of old-master paintings.

Between 1769 and 1779 Reynolds exhibited over 100 pictures at the Royal Academy, considerably more than he had exhibited during the previous decade at the Society of Artists. These included portraits of close friends, actors and actresses, scientists, clergymen, aristocrats, and children, as well as subject pictures and character studies. Although history painting formed a relatively small part of Joshua Reynolds’s artistic output, he devoted increasing time to it from the early 1770s onwards. His acolytes, moreover, promoted Joshua Reynolds’s history paintings as testimony to his genuine commitment to the cause of high art. In the decades following his death they were even counted among his greatest achievements, fetching great prices at auction and forming the focus of critical attention.

Further honours were bestowed on Joshua Reynolds during the 1770s. In September 1772 he was elected an alderman of the borough of Plympton, and a year later, on 4 October 1773, he was sworn in as mayor. In 1775 Joshua Reynolds was elected a member of the academy at Florence, following the presentation of his self-portrait to the grand duke of Tuscany. The honour Reynolds undoubtedly valued most was the doctorate of civil law awarded him in July 1773 by the University of Oxford: in subsequent self-portraits (notably that painted for the Royal Academy in 1780) he often portrayed himself in his academic robes.
On 1 October 1784 Joshua Reynolds was sworn in as principal painter-in-ordinary to the king, following the death of Allan Ramsay. Although the post conferred considerable kudos and a guaranteed income from replicating royal portraits. In 1785 Joshua Reynolds received a prestigious commission for a historical painting from Catherine the Great. The subject chosen by Joshua was The Infant Hercules Strangling the Serpents (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg). He devoted more time and attention to this picture than to any picture he had ever painted, working on it intermittently between early 1786 and the spring of 1788, when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Joshua Reynolds dominated the British art world in the second half of the eighteenth century, and any cultural history of the period would not be complete without some recognition of his central role. Many qualities contributed to his success. First and foremost, Joshua Reynolds was the most innovative portrait painter of his generation. Despite technical shortcomings and a tendency to sacrifice quality for quantity, his best portraits retain an unrivalled power and physical presence. His professional skills were underpinned by an unswerving personal ambition, tempered with an awareness of what could be realistically achieved in the current artistic climate, and within the bounds of his own particular gifts

1986 marked the biggest exhibition of Joshua Reynolds’s art mounted in the twentieth century, which was held at the Royal Academy, London. This exhibition in turn sparked new initiatives, notably the project for a new catalogue raisonné of Joshua Reynolds’s oil paintings, which was published by David Mannings (with Martin Postle) in 2000. However, while scholarly interest in Joshua Reynolds has been reinvigorated in recent years, this has not been matched either by a rise in public appeal, or by saleroom prices, which have remained below those of contemporaries such as Stubbs, Zoffany, Gainsborough, and Wright of Derby. A marked exception is Reynolds’s Omai (Tate collection), which sold at Sothebys on 29 November 2001 for £10.3 million.

Challenges Overcome

During the spring and early summer of 1789 Reynolds continued to take portrait clients virtually on a daily basis, including weekends. On Monday 13 July 1789 he had scheduled a 10 a.m. appointment relating to the double portrait of Miss Cocks and her niece (Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood House and London). On the same day he wrote in his sitter book, ‘prevented by my Eye beginning to be obscured’, the first reference to the failing sight in his left eye. Reynolds attempted to carry on with scheduled portrait sittings over the next few days, although within less than a week he was compelled to stop.

Disability Definitions

Visually Impaired

Visual impairment (or vision impairment) is a decreased ability to see to a degree that causes problems not fixable by usual means, such as glasses or medication. Eye disorders which can lead to visual impairments can include retinal degeneration, albinism, cataracts, glaucoma, muscular problems that result in visual disturbances, corneal disorders, diabetic retinopathy, congenital disorders, and infection. Visual impairment can also be caused by brain and nerve disorders, in which case it is usually termed cortical visual impairment.



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Martin Postle, ‘Reynolds, Sir Joshua (1723–1792)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/23429, accessed 19 May 2015] – Please note that you will require library subscription or a library card to access the content on this site.

Image source: Wikicommons

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