Joshua Reynolds was the 7th of 10 children of Samuel Reynolds (1681–1745), a clergyman schoolmaster, & his wife, Theophila Potter (1688–1756). Young Reynolds was educated by his father. According to biographer Martin Postle, "In addition to his teaching Reynolds's father maintained regular correspondence with friends on topics ranging from medicine to metaphysics. He observed the stars through his telescope, cast horoscopes, & wrote treatises on subjects as diverse as theology & gout."
Young Reynolds' 1st recorded portrait was made at the age of 12 in 1735. In 1740, he was apprenticed to Thomas Hudson in London, where the impatient young artist spent his time running errands, preparing canvases, & painting accessories in portraits. Although apprenticed to Hudson for 4 years, Reynolds only remained with him until summer 1743. He later seemed to regret, that he had not received a thorough art training, lacking "the facility of drawing the naked figure, which an artist ought to have."
By 1743, Reynolds took a house in Devonport with his 2 unmarried sisters, Fanny & Jane. Most of his portrait clients lived in London; & in 1747, he established a studio in St Martin's Lane. By November 1748, The Universal Magazine named Reynolds as one of Britain's most important artists.
By 1749, Reynolds sailed for the Mediterranean, apparently ready to study art. He visited Lisbon, Cadiz, Morocco, & Minorca. In March 1750, he arrived in Rome, where he made copies of old-master paintings.
Still a little impatient, he was disappointed by his 1st sight of the works of Raphael. Reynolds later recalled: "I found myself in the midst of works executed upon principles with which I was unacquainted: I felt my ignorance & stood abashed. Notwithstanding my disappointment, I proceeded to copy some of those excellent works. I viewed them again & again; I even affected to admire them, more than I really did."
In May 1752, Reynolds arrived in Florence, & went from there to Venice, where he spent time with the Italian painter Francesco Zuccarelli. That summer he also visited Padua, Milan, Turin & Paris & arrived back in London on 16th October, 1752.
According to biographer Martin Postle: "Reynolds was about 5 feet 6 inches tall, with ruddy, rounded facial features. He was partially deaf, which caused him in later life to affect a large silver ear-trumpet. He blamed the affliction upon a chill caught in the Sistine Chapel, although it was probably hereditary, as was his slight harelip."
After nearly 3 years abroad, Reynolds resumed his portrait practice at 104 St Martin's Lane, where he began producing over 100 portraits a year. By 1755, he was employing studio assistants to help him execute the numerous portrait commissions he received. The author of Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity (2005) wrote: "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, & by 1764 to 150 guineas."
Reynolds completed over 3000 works of art, including a few preliminary sketches. Apparently, Reynolds' worked every hour he could, including Sundays, from morning to night. Reynolds never married.
1764-7 Joshua Reynolds (English artist, 1723–1792) Elizabeth Herbert, Countess of Pembroke and her son George
In 1788, Reynolds told James Boswell, that he never married, because "every woman whom he had liked had grown indifferent to him, and he had been glad he did not marry her." Reynolds' sister, Frances, who lived with him as housekeeper, expressed a slightly different opinion, that her brother was "a gloomy tyrant." Apparently, the presence of his sisters in his home compensated Reynolds for the absence of a housekeeping wife. He wrote to his friend Bennet Langton, that both his sister & niece were away from home for a while, "so that I am quite a bachelor."
After his years of copying the classic artists, Reynolds wrote, "He therefore who in his practice of portrait painting wishes to dignify his subject...will not paint her in the modern dress...He takes care that his work shall correspond to those ideas & that imagination which he knows will regulate the judgment of others; & therefore dresses his figure something with the general air of the antique for the sake of dignity, & preserves something of the modern for the sake of likeness...The relish of the antique simplicity corresponds with what we may call the more learned & scientifick prejudice." He clad the women in his portraits in robes of ideal cut & texture, hardly reflecting the actual clothes worn at the time. Because we are looking at costumes in these postings, it is interesting to note that the costumes in Francis Cotes' portraits after 1746, were usually done by Peter Toms, who also performed the same task for Joshua Reynolds. It is impossible to know if the Neoclassical & Turquerie elements in either Cotes' or Reynolds' portraits were their creation or Toms.
1769 Joshua Reynolds (English artist, 1723–1792) Elizabeth Kerr, Marchioness of Lothian
Reynolds portrayed his well-heeled modern-day gentry as Classical subjects, & his approach of depicting his elite subjects as a mythical Goddesses attracted scores of women to Reynolds. Through these depictions, he also attempted to “elevate” his money-making genre of portraiture by including classic associations. History paintings were more important for an artist during this period, & Reynolds portraits were often allegoric figures with details from classical mythology & history. Much to the delight of their egos, the sitters in his works often portrayed as Greek & Roman deities.
1770 Joshua Reynolds (English artist, 1723–1792) Emily, Duchess of Leinster
Components of Reynold's Neoclassical & Turquerie portrait costumes intentionally remove the sitter from the immediacy of their own period by including some historical or exotic reference to an earlier culture. And so, 18C sitters could feel immortalized in the aura of ancient cultures.
1770-1 Joshua Reynolds (English artist, 1723–1792) Mrs Trecothick in Turkish Dress
Many of the simple yet fanciful costumes displayed in these paintings of women are adaptations of Turkish dress from several sources, including Sir Godfrey Kneller's 1720 portrait of ermine-robed author Lady Mary Wortley Montagu who had traveled to Turkey with her husband. As her colorful life became a topic of conversation & speculation, many other English artists including Charles Jervas & John Richardson also painted Lady Mary Montagu in modified Turkish dress.
1770-2 Joshua Reynolds (English artist, 1723–1792) Mrs. John Parker
Painters & their clients who chose to adopt some aspects of ancient looking Ottoman costumes, were striving for a more decorative yet still classic timelessness. Artists & Enlightenment thinkers turned to what they understood to be the values of classical Greece & Rome, valuing order, harmony, balance, & tradition in art. The props, costumes, & scenery of a portrait declared the values & the attributes by which the subject, and usually the painter, wanted to be known.
1773 Joshua Reynolds (English artist, 1723–1792) Anne Seymour Damer
Having Reynods paint your portrait was like going to the theater. Watching painters at work was a kind of entertainment at the time, & Reynolds certainly made performance a component of his work. He had a large mirror in his studio; which he placed, so that a sitter could observe the progress of the painting. He never sat when painting but was in perpetual motion. Being well-read & well-mannered, he engaged his sitters in polite, clever, & flattering conversation.
1774-6 Joshua Reynolds (English artist, 1723–1792) Mrs Richard Paul Jodrell
When the Royal Academy was established in 1768, Reynolds was elected its 1st president. The following year, George III knighted Reynolds at St James's Palace. Upon the death of Allan Ramsay in 1784, Reynolds was appointed as painter to George III. The king & his new court painter were never close, primarily because of Reynolds’ support for the Whig party.
1774-6 Joshua Reynolds (English artist, 1723–1792) Portrait of Mrs_ Robert Mayne (d 1780)
The appointment the office of Principal Painter in Ordinary did not bring the glory or the money that Reynolds had envisioned. Reynolds wrote to Jonathan Shipley, Bishop of St Asaph, a few weeks later: "Your Lordship congratulation on my succeeding Mr. Ramsay I take very kindly but it is a most miserable office, it is reduced from two hundred to thirty-eight pounds per annum, the Kings Rat catcher I believe is a better place, and I am to be paid only a fourth part of what I have from other people, so that the Portraits of their Majesties are not likely to be better done now, than they used to be, I should be ruined if I was to paint them myself."
1775 c Joshua Reynolds (English artist, 1723–1792) Lady in Pink, Said to be Mrs. Elizabeth Sheridan
However, 5 years after his royal appointment to court, his sight began to deteriorate, & he was forced to give up painting. The Morning Herald reported: "Sir Joshua feels his sight so infirm as to allow of his painting about thirty or forty minutes at a time only & he means in a certain degree to retire."
1775 Joshua Reynolds (English artist, 1723–1792) Jane, Countess of Harrington
1776 Joshua Reynolds (English artist, 1723–1792) Lady Worsley
1777 Joshua Reynolds (English artist, 1723–1792) Diana Sackville
1777-8 Joshua Reynolds (English artist, 1723–1792) Mrs. Thrale and her Daughter Hester
1778-9 Joshua Reynolds (English artist, 1723–1792) Jane Fleming, later Countess of Harrington
1784-9 Joshua Reynolds (English artist, 1723–1792) Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse
Joshua Reynolds (English artist, 1723–1792) Charlotte Grenville and her children
Joshua Reynolds (English artist, 1723–1792) Dorothy, Countess of Lisburne, c. 1777
Joshua Reynolds (English artist, 1723–1792) Lady Sunderlin, 1782
Joshua Reynolds (English artist, 1723–1792) Mary Wadsworth, Duchess of Kent, c 1778
For further information see:Derek Hudson, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1958)
Ian McIntyre, Joshua Reynolds: The Life and Times of the First President of the Royal Academy (2003).
Ellis K. Waterhouse, Reynolds (1941), and Reynolds (1973)
John Steegmann, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1933, reprinted 1977)
Nicholas Penny (ed.), Reynolds (1986)
Richard Wendorf, Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Painter in Society (1996)
David Mannings & Martin Postle, Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of His Paintings, 2 vol. (2000).
John Ingamells & John Edgcumbe (eds.), The Letters of Sir Joshua Reynolds (2000)