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Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1723 - 1792

Elizabeth Gunning, Duchess of Hamilton and Duchess of Argyll by Joshua Reynolds 

About the artist

Sir Joshua Reynolds is one of the best-known names in British art. He was one of the great portraitists of Europe in the second half of the 18th century. His works and his fame spread across the continent through prints of his paintings. He was also the first President of the Royal Academy, founded in 1768. This institution, under the patronage of King George III, played a key role in the professionalisation of art in Britain. It gave artists greater social and intellectual status and created a 'national school'. Reynolds, although he actually distrusted the politics of Royal patronage, was almost universally perceived by his contemporaries as the figurehead of the Academy. His fame as an artist was indivisible from his fame as 'the President'.

Reynolds, born in 1723, came from Devon. His father was a clergyman and master of the local grammar school, so he was brought up in an atmosphere of learning. His love of books and philosophical debate remained one of his strongest characteristics throughout his life, and he was friendlier with literary men, such as Doctor Johnson, James Boswell and Oliver Goldsmith, than he was with his fellow-artists.

His strongest impulse as an artist lay in proving that painting was one of the liberal arts, whose greatness came from the thought that went into it, rather than a craft or skill. Technically, Reynolds was a flawed artist, as many of his contemporaries came to realise. He was never a great draughtsman. He disguised his limitations as a painter under a liking for experimentation with colours and glazes. He justified this to himself as a way of recreating the styles of the Old Masters. This was a key part of Reynolds's intellectual stance.

Regarding the taste of the British public for art as limited, he believed that by imitating the Old Masters he would help educate patrons. But realistically, he also recognised that their taste could not be 'improved' overnight. He continued to work largely in the field of portraits, which were what British patrons most wanted. For a long time he limited the way he imitated the artists of the past, only gradually expanding his repertoire. He was annoyed when younger rivals such as Gainsborough and Romney rocked the boat, even while he recognised their abilities.

After he was chosen as the first President of the Royal Academy, Reynolds felt under pressure to adopt a more orthodox approach to history painting, which academic theory regarded as the highest branch of art. Before 1768, he had contented himself with adopting a 'historical' style in a number of his most prestigious portraits, ones which were likely to be seen by a large number of people and might be engraved as prints. The Lady Lever's full-length 'Duchess of Hamilton and Argyll' (1758-60) is one of the most celebrated examples of this, with the figure's air of a classical sculpture and its subtle allusions to Venus. However, from around 1770, Reynolds began regularly to paint actual mythological subjects. In 'Venus Chiding Cupid' Venus appears as herself, the Goddess of Love, rather than as a famous beauty at the court of George III.


The following paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds from our collections are available to view online: