Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) – Biography, Age of Innocence & Other Famous Paintings

In 1769 George III of Great Britain honored English painter Joshua Reynolds with a knighthood. Widely acclaimed as one of the greatest painters in Europe in the 18th century, Reynolds, a painter famous for his painting Age of Innocence, was a big proponent of the “Grand Style” of painting. He was also one of the founding fathers and first president of the Royal Academy of Arts, the famous British art institution located in London.

Aside from the Age of Innocence painting, what other portraits was Sir Joshua Reynolds most famous for? How was he educated? How was his childhood like? And what are his most notable accomplishments?

In the article below World History Edu explores the life, major works and other notable achievements of Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Joshua Reynolds: Fast Facts

Joshua Reynolds – Biography and Most Famous Paintings | Self-portrait of Reynolds, c. 1750

Date of birth: July 16, 1723

Place of birth: Plympton, Devon, England

Died: February 23, 1792; Leicester Fields, London, England

Aged: 68

Father: Rev. Samuel Reynolds

Mother: Theophilia

Siblings: Mary, Elizabeth, Frances

Education: Plympton Free Grammar School

President of the Royal Academy: 1768-1792

Most famous paintings: The Age of Innocence (1788), George III (1779), Lord Keppel (1779)

July 16, 1723; Plympton, Devon, England

Sir Joshua Reynolds was born in Plympton, Devon, England, on July 16, 1723. His father, Reverend Samuel Reynolds, worked as the head tutor at the Plympton Free Grammar School, which Reynolds attended in his childhood.

Growing up, he was influenced by the works of English clergyman and Platonist philosopher Zachariah Mudge (1694-1769). Reynolds even made three portrait paintings of Mudge, in 1761, 1762, and 1766.

Apprenticeship training in London

Sir Joshua Reynolds, an 18th-century English painter, primarily focused on portraits. He had an amazing ability of painting portraits in a using what artists often term as “Grand Style”. Self portrait at the age of seventeen

Growing up, Reynolds occupied himself with books and writings by ancient Greeks and Romans. Having falling in love with art and portraits, the young Reynolds set out to be an artist. To accomplish this, he took up a four-year apprenticeship training under the instruction of fellow Devon-born English portrait painter Thomas Hudson (1701-1779). Although he was supposed to stay as an apprentice with Thomas Hudson for four years, Reynolds left in his third year.

While under the tutelage of Hudson, he would often make copies of drawings by the Old Masters, including those by Italian Baroque painter Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (also known as Guercino).

Sir Joshua Reynold’s bold brushwork

After his studies in London, he returned to Devon, where he started painting. Not satisfied with the quality of his work, he returned to London in 1744 to improve his skill sets. He spent a significant amount of time preparing himself in the art style of the old masters. From then onward his individual style emerged, which saw him use bold brushwork.

Reynolds strong fascination with the Old Masters

His two-year stay in Rome was spent studying ancient classical artworks, including Greco-Roman paintings and Italian sculptures. Much of the knowledge he gained during this period had a tremendous impact on the rest of his career.

Hearing impairment

While studying the Old Masters and classical works in Rome, he suffered a severe cold that made him partially deaf. He used an ear trumpet to mitigate his hearing impairment. This is why is often depicted with an ear trumpet.

Rather than see his hearing loss as a disability, he instead credited it with providing him clearer insight into his work.

Portrait of Lord Keppel

The portrait Commodore the Honourable August Keppel (1749) was Sir Joshua Reynolds’s first portrait of Keppel

In 1749, Reynolds first met Lord Augustus Keppel, who by then was a Commodore in the navy. Keppel asked Reynolds to tag along on a voyage to the Mediterranean aboard the HMS Centurion.

Keppel would go on to become a national hero after he was acquitted of all charges brought against him by Sir Hugh Palliser. As part of his celebration, Keppel commissioned his longtime friend Sir Joshua Reynolds to make a portrait painting.

In the portrait, Lord Keppel’s hand is on his sword, which is an allusion to his victory after he was court-martialled.

Portrait of Lord Heathfield

Portrait of Lord Heathfield (1787) by Sir Joshua Reynolds

After British Army officer George Augustus,  1st Baron Heathfield, successfully defended Gibraltar against an alliance of French and Spanish forces, he was welcomed home as a national hero. In 1787, Sir Joshua Reynolds painted a portrait of Lord Heathfield. The baron is shown with a plume of smoke from the cannons in the background. The portrait also shows Heathfield donning military uniform while holding the key of the Rock.

Sir Joshua Reynold’s inspiration

As it was common for most English portrait painters of the 18th century, Reynolds took some bit of inspiration from the Flemish Baroque painter Sir Anthony Van Dyck. For example, he studied Van Dyck’s portrait of the Pembroke family (1634-35) before painting the Eliot family portrait in 1746.

Reynolds also loved the compositions and color of the great Renaissance Venetian painters of the 16th century, including Titian, Jacopo Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese.

He also studied the work of Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens when he visited Flanders and Holland in 1781.

Age of Innocence (1788)

The Age of Innocence (c. 1788) by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Sir Joshua Reynolds was also known for making portrait paintings of children. While painting those portraits, he paid particular attention to the sitter’s natural grace, preferring to emphasize the innocence of the child. This style of his is very much evident in his 1788 portrait The Age of Innocence. It is unclear who the child in the painting is; however, many art historians have suggested that the child was likely his niece Theophila Gwatkin, the daughter of his sister Mary Palmer. Others say it was Lady Anne Spencer, the daughter of the Duke of Marlborough.

More Sir Joshua Reynolds facts

His frequently presented discourses to the Royal Academy were aimed at convincing British painters to replace indigenous anecdotal pictures of the early 18th century with more formal rhetoric of the European Grand Style.

His sister was Mary Palmer Reynolds (1716-1794), the British author of Devonshire Dialogue. Palmer was the mother of British painter Theophila Gwatkin (1757-1848). Other siblings of Sir Reynolds included the English pamphleteer Elizabeth Johnson Reynolds (1721-1800) and painter Frances Reynolds (1729-1807).

He sometimes used his sister Elizabeth as a model for his works.

Following the death of Allan Ramsay (1713-1784), he was appointed the Principal Painter in Ordinary to King George III. However, he came to dislike the office partly due to the poor remuneration that came with the job.

While in Minorca, an island off the Mediterranean coast of Spain, with his friend British Royal Navy Officer Augustus Keppel, he fell off his horse and sustained a number of injuries, including one that gave him a permanent scar on his lip.

When asked to study with famous Italian portrait-painter Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787), Reynolds rejected the suggestion, saying that Batoni had nothing that he could teach him.

One of his assistants was the Italian-English painter and engraver Giuseppe Marchi (1735-1808). Marchi accompanied Reynolds back to England, where he would remain an assistant to Reynolds until the death of Reynolds in 1792. The two were said to be very close to each other. Reynolds even made a number of portraits of Marchi.

He lived in London from 1753 up until died. Sir Joshua Reynolds never got married.

Early portraits his in London brimmed with naturalness and vigor. Example of such portrait was the one of British Navy officer Augustus Keppel in 1753/54. 

Sir Joshua Reynolds

Edmund Burke on Sir Joshua Reynolds

Founding member of “The Club”

His strong interest in literature was the reason why he mingled with many famous British authors and poets of the 18th century. Some examples of the people in circle were lexicographer and playwright Samuel Johnson, playwright David Garrick, and novelist and playwright Oliver Goldsmiths. In addition to those men of letters, Reynolds was also friends with Swiss Neoclassical painter Angelica Kauffman and Anglo-Irish philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke (1729-1797). This group of his was known as “The Club”, which was founded in 1764.

Portrait paintings and scholarship

Back in London in 1753, he proceeded to set up a studio and employ assistants to help him handle the many portrait commissions he was receiving. Inspired by color and the effect of light and shading style from Florentine and Roman painters, he set about making portraits for many influential people in London, particularly those in the aristocratic circles. In Devon, he was able to get the Duke of Devonshire and the Duke of Grafton to sit for him to make their portraits. He also made portraits of the Duke of Cumberland, who was the third son of King George II.

From 1760 onward, he started incorporating classical and self-conscious styles that into his work. Much of the inspiration came from the classical Baroque painters of the Bolognese school of the 17th century. For example, the pose and clothes of the sitters that he painted usually appeared in a slightly rigid antique pattern. With this came, his reputation increased, and he was able to earn about 80 guineas for a full-length portrait.

In painting the poses in the portraits, he usually varied his style. However, many of the poses he used were copied from works of previous artists.

Formation of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768

Reynolds played a leading role in organizing a group of 34 artists, scholars and architects to establish the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768. Image: Royal Academy of Arts, London

In the late 1760s, Reynolds and a number of artists and scholars came together to establish the Royal Academy of Arts. It was then agreed this society of artists would hold annual exhibitions and displays of works by living artists.

President of the Royal Academy and Knighthood

Reynolds and his colleagues fervently sought the patronage of King George III, who gave a thumb up to Reynolds election as the Academy’s first president in 1768. A year after his election, he was honored by George III with a knighthood.

Reynolds was the president of the Royal Academy until his death in 1792. During his presidency, he worked with many leading artists and men of letters of the era to promote the arts and literature in Britain

Sir Joshua Reynolds’s discourses and lectures to the Academy

About a year after the founding of the Royal Academy, Reynolds started delivering his discourses (published as Discourses on Art) to the Academy. The common theme that ran through those discourses, which were between 1769 and 1790, was his emphasis on the importance of grandeur in art and how it could be achieved through training and study of the old classics and masters of art.

The “Grand Style” of painting

Praised for the discourses, Reynolds argued that English painters ought to take inspiration from not just Renaissance artists but also from classical works. He entreated them not to copy them but should instead try to idealize nature. In other words, he was one of the first proponents of the “Grand Style” of painting. For example, he based his full-length portrait of Captain Keppel on the classical statue of the Apollo Belvedere. In the portrait, the naval commander Keppel is depicted with an energetic stride.

Reynolds always thrived to apply the knowledge learnt from the works of the Old Masters to his portrait paintings. However, he was criticized by some for relying too much on the knowledge of the Old Masters.

How did Sir Joshua Reynolds die?

In 1782, the portrait painter suffered a paralytic stroke. A few years later, his eyesight began to wane. However, he was still able to go about working, although not in the same manner as he did in the decade before. His last discourse to the Academy came in 1790. Two years later, he died aged 68 at his house in Leicester Fields in London. He was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral. His will was executed by Edmund Burke, Philip Metcalfe, and Edmond Malone.

Other notable paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Famous paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds (L-R): Omai (1776), Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, by Sir Joshua Reynolds (c. 1775), The Cottagers (1788)

A master of portrait painting, Sir Joshua Reynolds painted some incredible portraits of people of his era, many of which were of his friends and family members. He was also known for painting portraits of women with questionable reputation. The following are some examples of his most notable paintings:

  • Commodore the Honourable August Keppel(1749)
  • Captain the Honourable Augustus Keppel
  • Colonel Tarleton
  • Cupid Untying the Zone of Venus (1784)
  • Lord Keppel (1779)
  • The Cottagers(1788)
  • The Ladies Waldegrave (1780-81)
  • Omai (1776)
  • Queen Charlotte (1779)
  • Giuseppe Marchi (1753)
  • King George III (1779)

Sir Joshua Reynolds and King George III

Reynolds did not get the level of patronage that he desired from King George III. He painted the King just once, which was in 1780 for the opening ceremony of the Royal Academy’s official building at Somerset House. However, he did get a reasonable number of commissions from the then-Prince of Wales.

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