Sir Joshua Reynolds

In looking around for a blog topic for today (I was feeling especially lazy, having just finished revisions and spending waaaay too much time watching the Olympics!), I found out one of the preeminent Georgian portrait artists, Sir Joshua Reynolds, died on this day in 1792 at the age of 69. I love Reynolds’s work whenever I’m lucky enough to see one on a museum visit, and enjoyed taking a closer look at his life! (Also today marks the anniversary of the death of Keats–I have a small tribute to him on my own blog, and I did a post on his death here at the Riskies a couple of years ago)

Reynolds was born on July 16, 1723 in Devon, one of 11 children of a village schoolmaster and clergyman. He showed an interest in art early on, and was apprenticed in 1740 to fashionable portraitist Thomas Hudson, where he stayed for 3 years. From 1749 to 1752, he studied the Old Masters in Italy and had a grand time, but sadly also caught a bad cold that left him partially deaf (in his self-portraits, he’s often seen with his ubiquitous ear trumpet). For the rest of his life he lived in London, rarely even taking a holiday from his studio. But he was never lonely–he was a sociable man with a wide and intellectual circle of friends such as Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick, Angelica Kauffmann, the Thrales, Edmund Burke, etc. He was one of the founders and the first president of the Royal Academy, an early member of the Royal Society of Arts, and a founder of the Society of Artists. He was knighted by George III in 1769. And yet he still had time to paint an estimated 3000 portraits (for which he could command between 80 and 100 guineas). He was well-known for his dynamic and life-like scenes.

Reynolds never married, though he had reputation as a nice and laid-back (though not very handsome!) man. His sister kept house for him and he seems to have been rather close to his family. There were rumors of liaisons with some of his artistic subjects, such as Nelly O’Brien and the actress Kitty Fisher, but nothing was ever proved. Boswell (who dedicated his Life of Samuel Johnson to Reynolds) stated, “He said the reason he would never marry was that every woman whom he liked had grown indifferent to him, and he had been glad he did not marry her.” He died in 1792 at his house in Leicester Fields in London and was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral. A good resource about his life is Martin Postle’s Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity (2005) and numerous art history volumes. A good source for discussion on his art can be found here. Here are just a few of his many, many Society and demi-monde portraits:

Nelly O’Brien

Elizabeth Gunning

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and her daughter

George III

Sir Joseph Banks

The Waldegrave sisters

Mrs. Sarah Siddons

Samuel Johnson

Johnson’s friend Hester Thrale and her daughter

Mary Robinson

Kitty Fisher

What is your favorite Reynolds portrait, or favorite historical artist? I’ve often thought it would be fun to dress up and have my portrait painted like one of these–what would you wear for your own portrait???

About Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

Writer (as Amanda McCabe, Laurel McKee, Amanda Carmack), history geek, yoga enthusiast, pet owner!
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