Joshua Reynolds was a man with many titles: artist, painter, educator, president, and Sir. In the 18th century, the man with an extensive career fulfilled all these roles.
In the summer of 1723, Joshua Reynolds was born into a large family in Plympton, England. His parents had 10 children in all. Their heritage could be defined as intellectual; Joshua’s great-grandfather was a mathematician and his father, a school teacher.
Samuel Reynolds provided his son with a broad education. It included reading, writing, history, arithmetic, geography, and drawing. On his own efforts, Joshua gave attention to medicine, metaphysics, and astrology. More than any other activity, however, his greatest interest was painting.
It is believed that Reynolds began painting at a young age. His first portrait was signed the year he turned 12. Around 17, he apprenticed with the artist Thomas Hudson. This is where he began to acquire skill as a portrait painter.
Joshua Reynolds started his independent career in 1743. In the beginning, his portraits included paintings of family members and himself. While much of his work showed signs of Hudson’s influence, his self-portraits revealed a Rembrandt quality.
In 1747, momentum built around Reynolds career. He set up a studio on St. Martin’s Lane in London. Most of his clients lived near the street that would become known for its art venues. During this time, his talent and connections bolstered his career; he was named “one of the nation’s most important artists” by The Universal Magazine.
On a tour through the Mediterranean and Rome in 1949, Reynolds was impressed by historical artwork. In fact, he was reported saying how ignorant he felt when viewing some of the world’s greatest art pieces. He copied many of these paintings and studied them often. His tour continued onto Florence where he spent a significant amount of time with Italian painter, Francesco Zuccarelli. He continued his travels, visiting places like Milan and Paris, before returning to London in late 1752.
When Reynolds was settled into his St. Martin’s Lane studio again, he was said to produce more than 100 portraits each year. The value of his artwork increased as he was asked to paint portraits of elite society.
In 1768, his career as a portrait painted merged with the world of art education. Joshua Reynolds was elected the first president of the Royal Academy. There he gave many lectures that would eventually become a great book of art criticism known as, The Discourses on Art. One year after he took the role as president, Reynolds was knighted by George III. Later, in 1784, Reynolds became the portrait painter to George III.
Following these accolades, Reynolds health began deteriorating. He was hard of hearing and would become so deaf he required the assistance of an antique hearing-aid, the ear-trumpet. By 1789 his sight was waning too. Still, Reynolds was known for being a good listener, great friend, and generous man. He was never thought of as “handsome.” Reynolds was short in stature with a round, flushed face. He never married but had a lot of friends and was admired by many.
Eventually, liver disease took the life of a great artist, educator, countryman, and friend. Joshua Reynolds died in London in 1792.
Today, the legacy of Joshua Reynolds lives on. While his work is revered, his practices and teachings are indispensable to the world of art. Joshua Reynolds was a man of much talent but beyond all else he was a person with many strengths. Few other artists deserve his titles.
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Joshua Reynolds English Portrait Painter