Today, Joshua Reynolds is recognised for the outstanding portraits he painted of the wealthiest and most influential in 18th-century Britain. However, he did not start out life in these privileged circles. Reynolds was born in Plympton, a town outside Plymouth, Devon, in 1723.
He was the son of Reverend Samuel Reynolds, a local schoolmaster and fellow of Balliol College, Oxford. At a young age, Reynolds was apprenticed as a painter to Thomas Hudson (1701–1779), another Devon-born artist, who became a leading British portraitist in the 1740s.
In 1749, Reynolds took the opportunity to travel to Italy aboard HMS Centurion. Reynolds painted a highly original self-portrait of himself before he embarked on his tour. In it, he raises a hand above his eyes as he gazes out of the canvas, as if towards an ambitious future.
While in Italy, he visited the great cities of culture, including Rome, Florence, Bologna and Venice. Reynolds closely studied the work of old master painters, which he came to greatly admire, and ancient sculpture.
He would later also visit the Low Countries, where he encountered paintings by the likes of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) and Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), and Paris, where he met contemporary artists, such as Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805).
Reynolds also assembled his own collection of art, which he studied intently and used as a means of exploring pictorial techniques.
The old masters left an indelible impression on Reynolds, to the extent that the materials and techniques he used over the course of his career, and the visual styles he developed, attempted to imitate the appearance of their paintings.
Reynolds saw his own work as complementing that of the old masters and intended for it to hang in galleries alongside historic paintings.
Reynolds’s pursuit of this aesthetic often led him to experiment with pigments and glazes. These materials sometimes became unstable (often only a short while after paintings were made) and are responsible for the cracking and discolouration now frequently seen in his work.
After returning from his trip in Italy, Reynolds quickly established himself in London, the centre of the art world.
During this time, he struck up close (and sometimes strategic) relationships with important cultural figures, including the actor and playwright David Garrick (1717–1779), the writer Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) and the Anglo-Irish politician and philosopher Edmund Burke (1729–1797), for whom he also painted portraits.
Reynolds played an instrumental role in leading a group of artists to found the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768, which was intended to teach generations of young students and to host exhibitions of works made by living artists. For his efforts, he was knighted the following year.
He was made the Academy’s inaugural President in 1768 and remained in office until his death in 1792. A self-portrait dating to this period, which was intended to hang in the Royal Academy’s Council Chamber, shows Reynolds in academic robes, reflecting his new-found position in the intellectual establishment.
In 1784, he was appointed principal painter to George III (1738–1820), despite the king not being particularly fond of his work, replacing the Scottish artist Allan Ramsay (1713–1784).
Reynolds exhibited his work widely, which contributed to its popular appeal and the public desire to reproduce his most famous works in prints. Between 1769 and 1790, he exhibited 244 paintings at the Royal Academy, the vast majority being portraits (only 32 were paintings of other subjects).
He also gave a series of lectures at the academy, which were published, too. These extolled the virtues of old master paintings and encouraged artists to study their work, as he had learned to do while touring Italy.
He regarded history painting, which typically represents mythological or religious subjects, as the highest genre of art, but the popularity of his portraits resulted in him producing comparatively few works of this type.
In his later years, Reynolds suffered from poor eyesight, which affected his ability to paint. Following a short illness, he died in 1792 at the age of 68. His achievements in the field of painting and the pivotal role he played in launching the Royal Academy meant that his death was honoured with much ceremony.
After being laid in state at the Royal Academy, his body was led to St Paul’s Cathedral in a grand procession, in which members of the academy participated. Reynolds has left behind a unique legacy, which the paintings at the Wallace Collection pay tribute to.