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Sir Joshua Reynolds

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Sir Joshua Reynolds Biography


Plympton 1723 – 1792 London


Joshua Reynolds was the most influential British painter of the eighteenth century, both in his career as a portraitist and his tireless work to raise the status of artists. Born in Plympton, Devon in 1723, the son of the master of the Grammar School, he was intended by his father as an apothecary but instead apprenticed himself to the London portrait painter Thomas Hudson from 1740-43. In 1749 Reynolds sailed to Italy with his friend Commodore Augustus Keppel. He spent two years in Rome with visits to Naples, Florence and Bologna, studying Renaissance and Mannerist painters and building up a repertoire of motifs, poses and classical learning which he would apply to his portraits back in England.


Reynolds established himself in St Martin’s Lane in 1753 and attracted attention with his portrait of Commodore Keppel, c.1753-4 (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich), who is shown striding along the seashore in the pose of the Apollo Belvedere. In 1760 he moved to Leicester Fields and showed four portraits at the Society of Artists, the first public exhibition of paintings in England. Reynolds’s versatility as a portraitist ranged from intimate portrayals of intellectuals such as Lawrence Sterne, 1760 (National Portrait Gallery, London), to aristocrats cast as Roman ladies, to witty allegories like Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy, 1762 (private collection). His lively group portraits and tender mother and child portraits made him the most prominent and expensive society painter of his age. He also painted ‘fancy pictures’, a small number of religious works and history paintings, beginning with Ugolino (Knole House, Kent) in 1773: the latter genre he considered to be the most prestigious type of painting.


Joshua Reynolds was the leading spirit behind the founding of the Royal Academy in 1768 and became its first President. The RA, with its royal patronage, emulated long-established European academies and raised the status of British artists. The following year Reynolds delivered the first of his fifteen Discourses, setting forth his theories on art, and was knighted by George III. He became Principal Painter to the King, who strongly disliked him, in 1784. By 1790 failing eyesight had caused Reynolds to cease painting and he died in London in 1792, leaving a magnificent collection of Old Master paintings and drawings.  





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