Reynolds, Sir Joshua

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Artists

One of England's great portrait painters, Joshua Reynolds was a well-educated, deep-thinking man who considered carefully every brush stroke. His learning included history, literature, and philosophy as well as art.

The son of the Reverend Samuel Reynolds, a schoolmaster, Joshua was born on July 16, 1723, in the town of Plympton Erle, not far from the port of Plymouth. He began drawing at an early age, and when he was 17, he studied portrait painting. From 1743 until 1749 he worked alone in London and in Devon. Then he went to Italy to study the masters of that country. Copying and analyzing the works of these great painters and working out his own methods, he became an expert artist.

In 1753, Reynolds settled in London and won quick success as a portrait painter. He had remarkable talent for capturing the character of his models, who included celebrities such as the writer Samuel Johnson. Reynolds painted portraits of women and children, too, with delicacy and taste.

As time passed, Reynolds became a friend of the most important people of his day. Before he was 40, he became deaf, but he did not allow his deafness to discourage him. He continued to lead a full social life and was increasingly sought after as a portraitist.

In 1768 the Royal Academy, a society that exhibited works of art and provided art instruction, was founded in London. Reynolds was made its first president, and in 1769 he received the honor of knighthood. Sir Joshua wrote a controversial series of essays on the principles of art for the students of the Royal Academy. These essays, called the Discourses, are still read and argued about today.

Sir Joshua was always willing to try something new. He was constantly experimenting with methods and materials. Unfortunately some of the paints he used have not lasted well. For example, the foreground of one of his best-known works, The Age of Innocence, has cracked. A visit to Holland and Flanders in 1781 affected his way of painting. He was especially influenced by the painter Rubens. Even though he was 58 and successful, he was willing to accept new influences and to change his own style. His fame grew, and in 1784 he was named painter to the king.

A good-natured, calm, and pleasant-mannered man, Sir Joshua was kind to young students at the Royal Academy. His powers of work were remarkable, and it is estimated that he painted over 2,000 portraits. Among those considered his best are Nelly O'Brien and Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse.

In his last years, Sir Joshua's eyesight began to fail, and he eventually stopped painting. He died in London on February 23, 1792, and was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral.

Herbert B. Grimsditch
Fleetway Publications (London)

 

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