Reynolds, Sir Joshua

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Reynolds, Sir Joshua

Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1723–92, English portrait painter, b. Devonshire. Long considered historically the most important of England's painters, by his learned example he raised the artist to a position of respect in England. Reynolds studied painting in London and in 1742 began as a portraitist in Devon. He was able to study the Italian masters when Commodore Keppel, a friend, took him to Italy in 1749. After three years of study and travel, Reynolds returned and took London by storm. Intensely ambitious, Reynolds used his wit and charm as well as his artistic talents to advance himself, and within a year he was besieged with portrait commissions and was employing assistants. He maintained a gallery not only of his own works but also those of old masters whose paintings he bought and sold. He entertained the world of wealth and fashion and the great literary figures of the day. When the Royal Academy was founded in 1768, Reynolds was inevitably elected president and was knighted the following year. His annual discourses before the Academy have literary distinction and are a significant exposition of academic style, propounding eclectic generalization over direct observation, and allusion to the classical past over the present. The Grand Style, thus proclaimed, was of enormous influence in the development of English portraiture. At 59, Reynolds had a paralytic stroke but recovered sufficiently to continue his work for several years. Before he lost his sight (1789), his style had become warmer and less formal, having been influenced by Rubens. Reynolds painted more than 2,000 portraits and historical paintings, depicting almost every notable person of his time. He often used experimental painting methods, which resulted in works now poorly preserved. His portraits of Commodore Keppel, Dr. Johnson, Lady Caroline Howard, Mrs. Siddons, Sterne, Goldsmith, Garrick, Gibbon, and Edmund Burke are among the many fine examples that are of historical interest. Reynolds's works are in nearly every major museum in the western world. He is best represented in the National Gallery, London, but examples of his work are to be seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Cleveland Museum of Art; and the Art Institute of Chicago.

See his letters (ed. by F. W. Hilles, 1929) and his Discourses on Art (ed. by R. Wark, 1959, repr. 1965); studies by E. Waterhouse (1941 and 1973).

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