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Joshua Reynolds Blog: A Man of Masks

In March 2015, Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint will open at the Wallace Collection, providing a fresh perspective on a towering figure of British painting. Yet how well do we really know Joshua Reynolds? Over a series of blog posts Mark Hallett, Director of Studies at the Paul Mellon Centre and co-curator of the exhibition, will provide an introduction to the artist and his highly experimental pictures.

Artist’s self-portraits are often appreciated as works that explore the inner depths of the creative personality. But they can also be understood – like portraits more generally – as a kind of mask or performance, projecting a fabricated persona out into the world, even when they pretend to offer a window into the subject’s true character.

On 12 March 2015 a new exhibition opens at the Wallace Collection, entitled Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint. Early in the display, which explores the experimental art of this famous eighteenth-century painter, viewers will encounter a remarkable self-portrait, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery.

 

Joshua Reynolds, Self-Portrait Shading the Eyes, Oil on Canvas, 63 x 74 cm, National Portrait Gallery London

Joshua Reynolds, Self-Portrait Shading the Eyes, Oil on Canvas, 63 x 74 cm, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

 

We think Reynolds painted this work in the late 1740s, just prior to a three-year trip to Europe that was to prove crucial to his artistic development. The Devon-born painter was in his mid-twenties at the time, and not long out of an apprenticeship with the fashionable London portraitist Thomas Hudson. The self-portrait confidently demonstrates the skills that Reynolds had learnt during his time with Hudson. He is shown standing in front of an empty canvas, with his palette and maulstick – an instrument upon he would have rested his painting arm while working – clasped in his right hand. Twisting his torso away from the depicted canvas, he raises his left hand to shade his eyes from the bright light that floods into the picture from outside the frame.

What do we make of this dramatic and unusual gesture of the raised left hand in Reynold’s self-portrait? Some scholars have speculated that it indicates the artist’s awareness that he was about to embark on a momentous voyage that had the potential to transform his career. To their eyes, it is as if Reynolds, like the captain of a ship travelling across uncharted seas, is gazing into the far distance, and looking forward to the future.

Other writers have suggested that, in combination with the clasped palette and jauntily-angled maulstick, the gesture of the raised left hand is used by Reynolds to call attention to the process of painting itself. Rather than showing the artist at rest, as was normal in self-portraits of this period, it depicts him in motion, caught up in the physical act of painting, and momentarily shielding his eyes so as to get a better view of his subject.

Another way of thinking about this gesture – and one that I find especially fascinating – is that it enables Reynolds to play with the self-portrait’s role as a form of masquerade and performance, and to experiment with the possibility of conveying a more private and withdrawn aspect of his identity. Look, especially, at the way in which it creates a band of shadow that, in falling directly across the artist’s eyes, insists on being interpreted as a kind of pictorial mask. It is mask behind which Reynolds can be understood as hiding, even as he projects such a confident and active persona to the world. He retreats enigmatically into the shadows, even as he attracts the light and courts our attention.

Interestingly, this sense of the self-portrait having a twinned character – both public and private, both exposed and hidden – is reinforced by the fact that there lies a second image of the artist buried underneath the picture we see today. A recent x-ray of the work carried out by the National Portrait Gallery has revealed that Reynolds had experimented with, and abandoned, an earlier version of the same self-portrait. Dissatisfied with this first attempt, he had swivelled the canvas around, and tried again, masking his original picture as he painted.

 

X-radiograph of Joshua Reynolds, Self-Portrait Shading the Eyes, ca. 1747-1749, oil on canvas, 63 x 74 cm, collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London. Photographic image © National Portrait Gallery, London.

NPG 41, Sir Joshua Reynolds by Sir Joshua Reynolds (Conservation X-Ray) oil on canvas, circa 1747-1749 © National Portrait Gallery, London

 

A lot lies buried beneath the surfaces of Reynolds’s pictures. Come to the exhibition and read the accompanying catalogue to find out more about the hidden stories of his art.

By Mark Hallett.


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