by Roderick Conway Morris

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National Portrait Gallery, London
Self-Portrait by Joshua Reynolds before his departure for Italy, c.1747-49

The Making of a Celebrity Portraitist

By Roderick Conway Morris
FERRARA, Italy 2 April 2005


Joshua Reynolds set out not just to be an artist but to be a famous artist. He devoted his skills to the portrait, realizing, like fashion photographers today, that by making images of celebrities he could become a celebrity himself.

The son of a school headmaster in sleepy Plympton in the English west country, he was pretty well unknown when he set up his studio in London in 1753, but long before the decade was out he was the most sought-after portraitist of the aristocracy, military, wealthy business classes, intellectual elite, stars of the stage and courtesans.

Typically Reynolds painted seven hours a day, seven days a week, producing an average of a hundred portraits a year, totaling more than 2,000 by the end of his career. He led a hectic social life, frequenting clubs, receptions, balls and gambling tables. He often entertained the in-crowd at his studio-home. An upper-crust friend complained that he spoiled his dinner parties by inviting too many guests to fit comfortably round the table. He was, according to gossip, 'romantically linked' to some of the beautiful women whose favors were otherwise set at a high price and whose portraits adorned his studio.

He was the driving force behind the founding of the Royal Academy of Arts and served as its first president, guaranteeing that his name would live on even if his art went out of fashion. When George III wavered about offering him a knighthood, he threatened to resign his post. Sir Joshua's lectures to the students, the 'Discourses,' were published, widely read and translated into French, German and Italian.

It has been nearly 20 years since the last major Reynolds exhibition was held in Paris and London, so 'Joshua Reynolds and the Invention of Celebrity,' the brainchild of Martin Postle, is timely. But it is also carried off with admirable intelligence and brio. This is the first show of its kind to be devoted to Reynolds in Italy, from which he drew so much. A gathering of nearly 90 paintings and engravings, many from private collections, the exhibition continues at Palazzo dei Diamanti until May 1. It will then travel to the Tate Britain in London (May 26 to Sept. 18).

Reynolds was a natural networker. His first teacher, Charles Hudson, also a Devon man and London portraitist, introduced him to useful metropolitan contacts. But it was a local commission to paint the seaman Richard, 1st Baron Edgcumbe, in the Devon port of Plymouth that led to an introduction to the war hero Commodore Augustus, 1st Viscount Keppel. Reynolds was, as Samuel Johnson put it, 'clubable.' He was considerably better educated than the average professional artist and could hold his own in 'society.' He knew that a visit to Italy, beyond the means of most English artists, was essential to his artistic and social advancement. Keppel offered him free passage on his ship to get there.

Reynolds managed to spend two years in Rome, then went on to Naples, Florence, Bologna, Parma, Mantua, Ferrara, Padua and Venice, returning via Paris, in the company of the young Giuseppe Marchi, who was to become his principal assistant and remain with him for the rest of the artist's life.

While in Italy, Reynolds wrote to Edgcumbe: 'I am now (thanks to your Lordship) at the height of my wishes, in the midst of the greatest works of art the world has produced.'

On his return, to thank Keppel, the artist did a stirring portrait of him on a rugged seashore, fearless, poised, assured, a source of light against a background of crashing waves and glowering storm clouds, the pose artfully imitating ancient statues of Apollo, the palette and brushwork a tribute to Titian and Tintoretto.

Later Reynolds tended to extol the Grand Manner, or 'Great Style' as he called it, of Michelangelo, Rome and Florence, but never an expert draughtsman, he actually painted more in the traditional Venetian manner, doing little preliminary drawing and building the image directly by applying colors onto the canvas.

But he was notably open-minded, his tastes often markedly ahead of that of his contemporaries. He valued such early masters as Masaccio and Mantegna long before less acute Grand Tourists appreciated them. His Italian experience also equipped him to become the greatest and most discriminating English collector of the century. He had a special gallery built to show his collection, attached to his studio-house. When he offered his collection to the Royal Academy at a very moderate price on condition that they created a proper home for it, they foolishly declined. It contained no fewer than eight paintings by Rembrandt, his principal influence outside Italy.

Much as he reveled in moving in the best circles, Reynolds did not underestimate the significance of popular journalism and prints, both of which were enjoying an unprecedented boom. The permission of sitters was required for their portraits to be marketed as engravings, but many were not averse to the broader circulation of their images.

More than 400 of Reynolds's works were distributed as engravings, reaching a mass audience hungry for celebrity pictures. Generally preferring the company of writers, thinkers and actors to that of other artists, Reynolds became friends with the literary grandees of the age. He founded the Literary Club, whose original members included Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke and David Garrick.

An unspoken lesson that Reynolds learned in Italy was the prestige that artists once and to some extent still commanded there. This was the land where popes and princes had vied for the services of the great masters. Some of the noblemen who encountered the English painter complained of his lack of deference, and this almost certainly contributed to his initial failure to win royal patronage from George III.

Even when Reynolds's work was the target of critical comments in the press, any publicity tended to be good publicity for the painter, who was unquestionably the most written about artist of the age. On George III's refusal to recognize Reynolds's talents, Johnson commented that public acclaim was more advantageous than royal patronage and that the court's reluctance to employ him reflected badly on the king. Despite everything, Reynolds did eventually become the 'principal painter' to George in 1784 and also had the satisfaction of being able to do an informal portrait of the Prince of Wales, a notorious boozer.

When he died in 1792, Reynolds's body lay in state at the Royal Academy before being conveyed for burial in St. Paul's Cathedral, followed by a cortège of more than 90 carriages. Among his pallbearers were some of the most senior peers of the realm. He had immeasurably elevated the status of art and artists in Britain, and to a remarkable degree what had been good for Reynolds had also been good for the nation.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2022