Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Joshua Reynolds

Lady Caroline Howard
oil on canvas
143 x 113 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., USA

Lady Caroline Howard (1778) was the daughter of Frederick Howard, 5th Earl of Carlisle. She was a spirited child, according to her father, and was seven years old when she sat to Reynolds.

Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) was the leading English portraitist of the 18th century. He attempted to lead British painting away from the indigenous anecdotal pictures of the early 18th century toward the formal rhetoric of the continental Grand Style. Through study of ancient and Italian Renaissance art, and of the work of Rembrandt, Rubens and Van Dyck, he brought great variety and dignity to British portraiture.

He was born at Plympton in Devon, the son of a headmaster and fellow of Balliol College, Oxford: a more educated background than that of most painters. He received a good classical education; he loved literature and became well-read in classical Greek and Roman authors. He revealed his interest in and talent for painting rather early. He was apprenticed in 1740 to a fashionable London portraitist who also trained Wright of Derby. He spent 1749-52 abroad, mainly in Italy, and set up practice in London shortly after his return. He soon established himself as the leading portrait painter. He was a key figure in the intellectual life of London.

Among his models were aristocrats and the gentry, state and political figures, military men, poets and writers, actors and scientists, upper-class ladies and women of questionable reputation. Having a lot of commissions, Reynolds produced more than 100 paintings a year. Naturally, to keep up such an output, he had to hire several assistants. The employment of drapery and landscape painters for adding backgrounds to portraits was a normal practice in England at the time. It was not uncommon for Reynolds to paint the face and hands, leaving the rest of the picture to be completed by his assistants.

When the Royal Academy was founded in 1768, he was elected its first President and knighted by King George III. As first president of the Royal Academy in London, he did more than anyone to raise the status of art and artists in Britain. His Discourses on Art, delivered to the students and members of the Academy between 1769 and 1790, are the most eloquent and widely respected body of art criticism by any English writer.

In 1784 he was appointed the court painter of King George III, though they never had close relations because of Reynolds’ political views and support for the Whig party. Although believing that history painting was the noblest work of the painter, he had little opportunity to practice it, and his greatest works are his portraits. His paintings are not perfectly preserved due to faulty technique. The carmine reds have faded, leaving flesh-tones paler than intended, and the bitumen used in the blacks has tended to crack. Three years before his death he became blind and had to stop his work. He was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral with honors as a man of national fame in Britain. A bronze statue of him was placed in the courtyard in front of the Royal Academy in 1912.