Joshua Reynolds

Full Name:
Sir Joshua Reynolds
Short Name:
Date of Birth:
16 Jul 1723
Date of Death:
23 Feb 1792
Oil, Other
Art Movement:
Plympton, United Kingdom
Joshua Reynolds


George III
George III
Born in Devon, England, to a strict diciplinarian father, Joshua Reynolds enjoyed a relatively smooth rise to success throughout his life as he became England's premiere Rococo painter. Like many artists, he traveled to Italy during his early years to absorb the lessons of the great masters and brought back with him to England a refined artistic sensibility that set him apart from most other artists.

Reynolds fused the styles of the Italian Renaissance and the fashions of his time to forge a new and extravagant painting style that took Europe by storm. Best known for his elaborate portraits of England's high society, Reynolds is credited with inventing the concept of the celebrity.

His social circles became the same as those of whom he painted and the artist was eventually knighted and became the official court painter to George III. Not merely a painter, Reynolds also started a literature club and lectured about art, literature, philosophy, among other things.

The artist was well trained in the Classics from his time spent in his father's school in Plympton, Devon and he learned of the Italian masters under his mentor, Hudson. He was exposed to the works of van Dyck while he was studying in London.

However, his biggest inspiration came from his time spent in Italy where he noted all the great masters and learned about their compositional, chiaroscuro and coloring technicalities. Such knowledge impacted on his artistic career for the rest of his life.

Sir Joshua Reynolds completed over 3000 works of art, including a few preliminary sketches which were very rare as he wasn't a keen draughtsman. Reynolds' worked every hour he could, including Sundays, from morning to night. Even after his mild stroke and the deterioration of the sight in his left eye, he endeavored to discover new dimensions to the art of painting which was his passion until the end of his career and life. Thus he has been dubbed the father of British painting.

Joshua Reynolds Artistic Context

Reynolds conducted his successful career during the height of the English Rococo. The Rococo era originated from the French decorative style Racaille meaning 'decorative shell and rock work'. It primarily stemmed from the architecture and furniture style that was popular amongst the bourgeois and new rising wealthy class in France who wanted works that reinforced their wealth and pleasure in all their beauty and splendor.

The Rococo style soon caught on in England as the country had a huge rise in middle class and wealthy merchant businessmen due to its advances and control over new colonies in the West, South and East. Reynolds was able to serve the needs of this growing middle class with his flattering and elegant portraiture style.

The Rococo era was characterized by hedonistic freedom and a pursuit of all things aesthetically pleasurable. The Palace of Versailles was the ideal in decadent Rococo art and architecture with its ornate decoration and grandeur.

During the Rococo era portraiture was extremely across the world but particularly in Great Britain where pioneers of this style include William Hogarth, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough.

Reynolds helped to define different concepts, not only in British painting, but across the Western world. He was a renowned intellectual who socialized in the elite social circles of London and received most recognition for his portraits, particularly of the London elite. His popularity was due to his ability to raise the figureheads of the day to a mythological level, which flattered the subject.

Joshua Reynolds Biography

Thomas Hudson
Thomas Hudson
Early Years:
Joshua Reynolds was born 16 July 1723 in Devon, England, and grew up under the strict rule of his father. The book Richardson's Theory of Painting,' had been inspirational to Reynolds as a child and from it he learned the vigor of painting and the teachings of Raphael and the Great Masters. It was through this text that Reynolds' passion for painting was ignited and his admiration for Raphael in particular was to become one of his biggest influences.

With an obvious artistic talent, Reynolds moved to London to attend art school and he also worked under successful artist Thomas Hudson. At the age of 27 Reynolds embarked on a pilgrimage to Italy to study the works of the great masters foe himself

Middle Years:
In 1753, Reynolds and other artists decided to form the Royal Academy to define new aspects in British art. By 1760, Reynolds had become so successful that he was able to purchase a house in the plush London neighborhood of Leicester Fields.

At the height of his popularity in England and beyond, Reynolds became president of the Royal Academy of Art in 1768 and was knighted the following year. He later became official court painter to King George III.

Advanced Years:
Reynolds continued as president of the Royal Academy until the end of his life but he stopped painting because of poor eyesight in 1789 and died three years later aged 68. Reynolds' funeral was held at St. Paul's Cathedral, where his body was cremated and a statue was erected to commemorate him.

He had lived to become one of the most recognized artists, academics, and literary contributors of the 18th century, not to mention the mayor of Plympton in 1773.

Joshua Reynolds Biography

Joshua Reynolds Style and Technique

Reynolds specialized in historical works denoting the modern-day gentry as Classical subjects. This new approach of depicting the elite subject as Gods and Goddess of mythical origin proved beneficial for Reynolds as he became immensely popular while many orders came streaming in from patrons.

Defining Characteristics:
Color Palette:
For flesh tones, Reynolds used black, blue-black, lake, carmine, white, orpiment, yellow ochre, ultramarine, and varnish. It was most important to get the mixture on the palette as close to the sitter's real complexion as possible. It was one of the first things Reynolds did concerning the color scheme after the initial sketch.

Reynolds felt that blatantly mixing the colors would affect the natural blending so he opted to layer the colors while still fresh and wet. By layering the wet, soluble colors, the paints were allowed to have a fresh, clean appearance.

Brush Work:
Reynolds' brush work is smooth and not heavily applied to the canvas. His strokes are long, hard, and broad in nature. He does not completely blend his brush work in his paintings, which makes them very clear and bold.

Composition, Tone and Lighting:
Reynolds ensured that the positioning of the core lighting was always upon the main figure and his background landscapes were also accentuated. He created stark shadows where necessary and bold highlighting to emphasize the primary color, so the eye could follow a harmony in the works that created a natural, three-dimensional effect.

Methods Utilized:
Reynolds used a primary color such a red as the main force in his work. He then would include reds all over the work to help redirect the eye to the primary color to emphasize the sitter's flesh tones. He always used bold colors to create unity in his works instead of softer tones.

Joshua Reynolds Style and Technique

Joshua Reynolds Who or What Influenced

Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma
Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma
Peter Paul Rubens
Paolo Veronese
Paolo Veronese
Anthony van Dyck:
Van Dyck's work was the earliest influence in Reynolds' painting and his earliest family portrait took on the same elegant style and compositional techniques that van Dyck had used.

Even in his portraits post-Italy, Reynolds used the décor and various props to help accentuate the presence of the sitter and took into account various poses to help express their inner character.

Peter Paul Rubens:
Reynolds had made the trip to Antwerp in the late 1700s and there he studied the works of Rubens in detail. He noted the great master's approach to rich coloring and ability to define spatial elements.

After returning from Antwerp, Reynolds started implementing a richer color palette as Rubens had done and used the various color schemes to accentuate the sitter and recreated a focus by using various highlights with chiaroscuro.

Reynolds was first exposed to the works of Raphael when he was just 10 years old when reading Jonathan Richardson's Theory of Painting. By then, he was already fascinated by the works of the great Italian master and would try out the various new aspects in his early portraits.

On his trip to Italy, Reynolds was finally allowed to see and experience being educated in the style that Raphael had once taught. Reynolds went on to study all the great masters from the Venetian school of the 16th century, focusing on their compositional and aesthetic qualities pertaining to culture and society's perception to the 'natural' in art.

Baroque masters:
Reynolds has made several references to the various schools of art that emerged in the century preceding his, as well as the new concepts of style and painting technicalities that helped bring new light into the realm of art. He divided the art schools into the dominating art forces: the Italian Baroque and Dutch Baroque (also known as Flanders Baroque).

These two schools impressed him the most. He noted the various religious and cultural influences, how art had progressed upon those lines, and how the two societies had redefined beauty.

Reynolds drew a lot from the Baroque era and its aesthetics, as he too experimented with various methods of creating new ways of making and mixing paints in order to alter effects upon the canvas. He relied heavily on chiaroscuro techniques from artists such as Rembrandt and Caravaggio and would analyze the different lighting approaches to create mood and composition.

The Venetian and Italian school of Antiquity of the 16th century:
Reynolds was fascinated with the various coloring and compositional methods that derived from the Venetian schools and their approach to the Classical figures. He noted the various methodologies in flesh tones that could be highlighted through shading and color.

The most noted artists of this period who inspired Reynolds were Michelangelo, Titian, Jacobo Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese.

Joshua Reynolds Works

Admiral Augustus Keppel
Admiral Augustus Keppel 1779
Admiral Francis Holburne 1704-71 and his son Sir Francis 4th Baronet 1752-1820
Augustus Keppel
Captain The Honourable Augustus Keppel
Charles Lennox 3rd Duke of Richmond
Colonel Acland and Lord Sydney: The Archers
Colonel Tarleton
Cupid and Psyche
Lord Heathfield of Gibraltar
Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse
Self-Portrait when Young
Suzanna Beckford
The Infant Hercules Strangling Serpents in his Cradle
The Portrait of Omai

Joshua Reynolds Followers

Thomas Lawrence
Thomas Lawrence
Sir Henry Raeburn
Sir Henry Raeburn
Royal Academy of Arts London
Royal Academy of Arts London
Reynolds' elegant and refined approach to portraiture drew on the Classics and from his studies at the Venetian School of Antiquity. Reynolds refined the aesthetics to such a manner that it came to define the British tastes and put British art on the map. Furthermore, Reynolds' style heavily influenced the Romantic period in England and Europe.

Students of Joshua Reynolds:
During his period in London, anybody who was anybody in British society would fill up his studio space waiting to get their portrait painted by Reynolds, the official court painter.

As a result, the artist took on numerous students to help him finish his numerous commissions. His first student was Giuseppe Marchi, whom he taught in Italy and returned to England with.

Sir Thomas Lawrence:
Thomas Lawrence moved to London and Reynolds accepted him into his studio, later becoming a student of the Royal Academy. From then on he began to exhibit his works, and his popularity soared. He was inducted into the Academy in 1791 and following Reynolds' death in 1791, Lawrence took the helm and his works were highly sought-after by the upper-class society members across Europe.

Lawrence also specialized in portraiture and his classical style was reminiscent of his former master's. He was made president of the Academy for his outstanding merits and contribution to the art world in 1818, the year after he was knighted.

Sir Henry Raeburn :
Raeburn married into wealth and travelled extensively to Italy, where he studied the great masters. On his return to England, he was introduced to Reynolds, who advised him to head back to Italy and study the works of Michelangelo.

With the recommendation of the Royal Academy and that of Reynolds, Raeburn was introduced to many high circles and patrons during his two-year stay in Italy.

Raeburn helped found the Royal Academy of Scotland and later became president. He was most noted for his delicate approach to character and his wonderful array of clashing colors in his portraits, most particularly, his female portraits.

Royal Academy:
Reynolds' works and approaches to beauty and aesthetics through his 15 lectures and discourses have been taught since his death. He was the first president and founder of the society that looked to uphold and discover a new potential of artists in England. To this day Reynolds' approaches are still analyzed.

Joshua Reynolds Critical Reception

William Blake
William Blake
A man of great consequence and influence during his own time, the work of Sir Joshua Reynolds has been hotly debated by subsequent artists who wished for a less formulaic, more spirited type of art. What is undeniable is that his legacy continues to this day, though criticized to varying degrees throughout history.

During Life:
Reynolds maintained a high level of respect during his lifetime which was never questioned. Beloved by critics and the elite of England alike, (who were in reality one and the same), Reynolds went on to found the Society of Artists, was elected president of the Royal Society of the Arts, and gave a series of successful lectures that were taken as quite perceptive for their time.

After death:
After Reynolds' death, the English artists who followed were divided into two distinct camps as to the merit of his work. While some, such as J. M.W. Turner, applauded his painterly techniques, others, like William Blake, were offended by his strict viewpoints.

William Blake:
The political and anarchic Blake widely and quite publicly criticized the antiquated ideals of Reynolds, even writing a counter attack "Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds' Discourses" in 1808, in which he marked up Reynolds' landmark text with expletives such as "Villainy," "A Lie," and "Nonsense!"

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who objected to the cold mechanism of Mannerism and wished to return to Renaissance ideals (before Raphael) and a greater focus on detail, took issue with Reynolds, who they deemed "Sir Sloshua. " In their opinion, his portraits were too formulaic, sloppy, and academic, typical of the Mannerist tradition.

J. M.W. Turner:
Fortunately it was not only negative criticism by 19th century artists. The Romantic visionary, J. M.W. Turner, known for his turbulent seascapes and violent use of color, was such a fan of the legacy of Reynolds that he requested to be buried by his side.

Modern Day Reception:
While the Rococo as a movement was not the most historically respected, English Rococo artists have fared better over time in a critical sense than the French.

While Reynolds' ideas may seem antiquated, his experiments with color blending and the way he elevated the celebrities of the age has a lot in common with modern fashion photographers and the paparazzi.

Joshua Reynolds Bibliography

For further information about Reynolds and his works please refer to the following list of recommended books.

• Farington, Joseph & Postle, Martin. Memoirs of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Pallas Athene, 2005
• McIntyre, Ian. Joshua Reynolds: The Life and Times of the First President of the Royal Academy. Allen Lane, 2003
• Reynolds, Joshua & Roberts, Keith. Joshua Reynolds. Bastei, 1968
• Reynolds, Joshua, Russell, Francis, Roberts, Keith & McIntyre, Ian. Joshua Reynolds. Purnell, 1966
• Reynolds, Joshua. Seven Discourses on Art. Kessinger Publishing, 2004
• Reynolds, Joshua & Wark, Robert R. Discourses on Art. Edition: illustrated, reprint. Huntington Library, 1959
• Wendorf, Richard. Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Painter in Society. Edition: illustrated. Harvard University Press, 1996

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