Each of Joshua Reynolds’s paintings, according to fellow Royal Academician, Joseph Farrington, ‘was an experiment on some project of improvement suggested by his incessant endeavours to reach something yet unattained either by himself or others.’
He was, in this way, a product of his era. Reynolds and his contemporaries inherited a world transformed by the 17th century’s Scientific Revolution – a revolution accomplished in part as philosophers embraced the public trial of experiments as a privileged path to knowledge.
While Joseph Wright of Derby famously made experiment the subject of his paintings, both contemporaries and modern conservationists tell us that Reynolds’s portraits were experiments: material essays into the unknown.
His unconventional approach to painting technique can be glimpsed through his Miss Jane Bowles (about 1775), in which the sombre woodland behind the portrait’s young sitter has been built from a complex layering of media – pigments blended with walnut oil, pine resin, mastic gum and beeswax.
Even though this particular painting remains in good condition, such experimental methods could dramatically shorten the life of his paintings and for many period observers, were more cause for alarm than celebration.
Reynolds’s distinctive practice can be illuminated by considering the broader relationship between artistic and scientific experiment in the period – a relationship exemplified by London’s Society of Arts, which used experimental protocols to establish the viability of competing solutions to practical challenges in arts and industry. Elected a Society member on 1 September 1756, Reynolds participated directly in these endeavours.
In 1757, for example, Reynolds was nominated to serve on a committee for making trials of 200 pounds of verdigris (a greenish-blue pigment derived from the chemical action of acetic acid on copper plates).
In May 1760, he was selected to serve on a subcommittee assigned with assessing Swiss-born artist Johann Heinrich Müntz’s treatise on encaustic painting, along with two paintings designated by the artist as ‘private experiments’ on the subject. Reynolds’s own innovative, wax-infused methods, would hew closely to the egg-varnish treatment employed by Müntz in these trials.
Like Müntz, Reynolds also painted experimental canvases, notably his Studio Experiments in Colours and Media. Anchored to the bottom edge as an amber archipelago, pats of pigment spread upward, in turn taking the shapes of a floating, mauve-colored dot, a sashaying deposit of unctuous knife-work at right center, and a fat pucker of paint-media on the creamy ground at the right-hand edge.
Where Müntz’s experiments enabled the painter to predict how pigments would appear after encaustic firing, Reynolds’s canvas helped him to anticipate material change through time.
No one working in the arts of 18th-century Britain explored such experimental ground more rigorously than Josiah Wedgwood, the savvy entrepreneur who helped transform the Staffordshire pottery-works into a leading frontier of the Industrial Revolution.
Wedgwood executed some 5000 trials on enhancements to body, glazing, painted decoration and other features of fired earthenware, documenting his efforts in a series of encrypted ‘Experiment Books’. These were designed to be incomprehensible ‘without the key, to any person who might [have] happened to take up the book.’
Such protocols help clarify Reynolds’s own experimental notations. At the end of two ‘Ledger Books’, now housed at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, Reynolds records, in curious mixture of pidgin Italian, English, and Latin, the methods and materials through which a selection of his paintings had been fabricated.
Yet, while Wedgwood employed experiment to guarantee quality of product, using ‘the available means of production,’ as one historian put it, to guarantee that ‘chance and variation would be eliminated,’ Reynolds’s experimental enterprise pursued a different orientation to the luxury market, eschewing strict product-standardisation for one-of-a-kind works open to serendipitous effects.
Reynolds’s pigment trials, notational systems, and technical interests offer a view of the artist-as-experimentalist we have largely lost. However, he also voiced reservations on the issue. Forbidding his young assistants from using ‘experimental mixtures’ of paint, he warned that art and science should equally guard against uncontrolled experimentation.
Rather than undermining his scientific credentials, Reynolds’s theoretical reservations actually help illuminate the point. His opposition of painting’s science to ‘mere’ experiment moves in the spirit of Francis Bacon, a pivotal figure in the philosophy of experimentation, who argued for a ‘closer and more binding alliance … between the [experimental and the rational] faculties.’
Through his involvement at the Society of Arts in the late 1750s, Reynolds can be seen as moving in a practical milieu where experiment denoted as much systematic, public testing as open-ended trials made in pursuit of dazzling effects.
By approaching Reynolds’s methods and archiving of experiments as different from, rather than inferior to, the projects of acclaimed contemporary experimentalists, we may equally understand his theoretical reservations about experiment as importantly continuous with the scientific tradition.
Text adapted by Hannibal de Pencier, writer and independent researcher, from Hunter, M., 'Reynolds's Science of Experiment in Practice and Theory', in Davis, L., and M. Hallett, Joshua Reynolds. Experiments in Paint, London, 2015, pp. 100–11.