Sir Joshua Reynolds was born in Plympton, Devon, England, in 1723 and is recognized as one of the most accomplished Portrait Painters of the 18th century. He was a son of the Reverend Samual Reynolds, headmaster of the local Plympton Free Grammar School, and a fellow of Balliol College, Oxford.
Joshua Reynolds sister Mary paid for his four-year apprenticeship in London to the Devon-born portrait painter Thomas Hudson. Hudson was the most successful portrait painter in London at the time.
Reynolds concluded his apprenticeship with Thomas Hudson in 1743 and returned to Devon as a portrait painter. However, in 1744 he returned to London to work with Hudson again, returning to Devon to live with his sisters in Plymouth Dock following the death of their father in 1745.
Plymouth was the home port of many ships in the Royal Navy, and as an up-and-coming portrait painter, Reyolds met many important naval figures, painting Captain George Edgcumbe, later Earl of Mount Edgcumbe, in 1748. Knowing that Reynolds was keen to visit Europe to further his studies of artworks by the Old Masters, Edgcumbe introduced Reynolds to Augustus Keppel, Commodore of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean fleet.
Keppel took Reynolds with him on his flagship HMS Centurion as far as Menorca in the Balearic Islands, where Reynolds painted his first of the six portraits of Keppel and senior officers in the British Garrison.
Joshua Reynolds left the ship to travel to Livorno in Italy. He went from there to Rome, where he stayed for two years, studying Old Masters paintings and learning about the “Grand Style’ for which he became famous. Reynolds was influenced by the Italian Renaissance art of Titian, the Baroque paintings of Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Paul Rubens, and Anthony van Dyck.
Reynolds traveled to Florence, Bologna, Venice, and Paris, accompanied by Giuseppe Marchi, who he had met on his travels. Marchi was a studio assistant for the remainder of Joshua Reynolds’ career.
When Reynolds returned to England in 1752, he spent three months in Devon. He then left for London, where he quickly became a famous portrait artist. Lord Edgecumbe again helped him by introducing Reynolds to the Duke of Devonshire and the Duke of Grafton. Following notable paintings of the Dukes, Reynolds was introduced to the Duke of Cumberland, whose father was King George 11.
Reynolds' portrait paintings of the aristocracy and wealthy society were well received. By 1760 Reynolds could afford to move into a substantial house in Leicester Fields, where he had a large studio, space to show his completed paintings and lodging for his assistants. Joshua Reynolds lived there for the remainder of his life. He never married and was looked after by his sister Francis, who was his housekeeper.
Joshua Reynolds portrait paintings commanded a fee of eighty guineas in 1761, which is $30,000 in today’s money. Reynolds worked very hard, rarely taking a vacation, and was able to work with at least six sitters every day in his studio. Usually, Joshua Reynolds had the clothing of the sitters in his portraits painted by studio assistants, notably Guiseppe Marchi and Peter Toms. Like Reynolds, Toms had been apprenticed to Thomas Hudson and was best known as a drapery painter. Peter Toms painted all the clothing in the portraits, with Sir Joshua Reynolds painting the faces, arms, and legs. Because the sitters of his portrait paintings were famous, wealthy people, Reynolds used models to wear the clothes shown in his portraits. Reynolds would also paint the backgrounds of the portraits.
1. Age of Innocence 1788, oil on canvas painting gifted to the National Gallery of Britain and on display at Tate Britain in London.
2. Cupid Untying the Zone of Venus, also on show in Tate Britain in London
3. Portrait of Master Hare, held by the Louvre in Paris
4. Mrs. Abington 1771, owned by the Yale Center for British Art at Yale University, New Haven CT
5. The Ladies Waldegrave, painted in 1781, is owned by the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh
6. Captain the Hon George Edgcumbe, owned by the Royal Museums at Greenwich, England
7. Commodore the Hon Augustus Keppel 1749, owned by the Royal Museums at Greenwich,
8. Prince William Augustus Duke of Cumberland, owned by the National Portrait Gallery in London
9. George 111, held by the Royal Collection Trust and hanging in St. James Palace in London
10. Portrait of William Cavendish, 3rd Duke of Devonshire, owned by the current Duke of Devonshire at his home Chatsworth House, in England
11. Charles Fitzroy, 2nd Duke of Grafton, owned by the University of Oxford and held in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England
12. Portrait of Omai, painted in 1776, owned jointly by the J. Paul Getty Museum of Los Angeles and the National Portrait Gallery in London, to be shown in London and Los Angeles.
The National Trust of England owns seventy-six oil paintings on canvas by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The Trust received the paintings as endowments from the families of owners of English country houses who could not pay inheritance taxes on the previous owner's death.
The Wallace Collection in London owns twelve paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The Reynolds Room at Castle Howard in Yorkshire, England, holds a collection of portraits of the Howard family by Sir Joshua Reynolds and, until its sale, the iconic oil painting Portrait of Omai.
Oil paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds are widely held by museums and in private collections worldwide.
Sir Joshua Reynolds became the first president of the Royal Academy of Art, founded in 1768 and based in Burlington House, Piccadilly, London. Reynolds remained as president until he died in 1792. Reynolds was knighted in 1769 by King George 111.
As president, Sir Joshua Reynolds gave an annual speech known as his Discourses, in which he offered his opinions about art, art theory, and the Grand Style, put forward as a style of painting taken from Classicism and Renaissance paintings.
In 1784 Reynolds was appointed principal painter in ordinary to King George 111. It was not a role that he enjoyed, and although he did paint some portraits of the King and Royal family, he painted fewer portraits of them than previous holders of this position.
Reynolds lost sight of his left eye, which caused him to stop painting. He was still quite active socially, but his health started to fail, and he died at his house in Leicester Fields in 1792. Given what amounted to a state funeral, he is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
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