One of the outstanding British portraitists and an important influence on his contemporaries. Born in Devon, the son of a Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, at seventeen Reynolds was apprenticed to the portrait painter Thomas Hudson, By the age of twenty he had set himself up as a portraitist among the local gentry in Devon and the naval officers at Plymouth. Taken to the Mediterranean on a ship commanded by a friend, he reached Rome in 1749 and stayed there three years. While studying, he eked out his finances by occasional copying of Old Masters, doing portraits of English visitors and the caricature portrait groups then in style. He returned to London via Paris and within a short time had achieved a considerable success. In 1755, for example, he did 120 portraits. Reynolds bought a large house with studios and exhibition gallery as well as facilities for his many students and assistants. He lived in high style and collected Old Master paintings as part of the role of being successful and fashionable, and also because his viewpoint as an artist made such collecting inevitable. Although his prices increased constantly, commissions kept pace: portraits, group pictures and historical themes. His sitters included the socially prominent people of the time and when the Royal Academy was founded in 1768, he naturally became its first president; he was also knighted. This success was the product of his exceptionally strong will and determination to succeed. An urbane and discreet opportunist. he moved in the highest aristocratic circles as well as an exclusive literary and theatrical group that included Goldsmith, Dr. Johnson, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and other celebrities. In 1784 he became principal painter to the king and employed various assistants to do the many royal portraits expected of him. At the same time he acted as agent and dealer for noblemen interested in collecting Old Masters.
Reynold’s point of view as a painter was just as “safe” as his social outlook; he believed that by analysis of the Old Masters he could build a composite style of great art. He made careful studies of Rembrandt, Titian, Correggio and various French painters in the furtherance of this aim, but these eclectic procedures do not represent his best work. He did have a personal creative power and variety of pictorial invention when he chose to let himself go and to forget that he was a great man. We find many paintings with a life and a grandeur beyond the many borrowed elements. His portraits -the honest ones-are effective because their expression is related to the type of sitter, e.g., Dr. Johnson, Admiral Keppel and many others. His colors are difficult to judge today because they were not scientifically applied, so that many paintings have cracked and faded, but the form, design and pictorial rhythm are often quite impressive. Many o# his portraits are originally composed in decorative pattern and organized in light and space arrangements. Although such works are distinguished by graceful and controlled movement as well as dignity, he is far less successful in his privately painted coy nudes, sentimentalized children, and such trite and inanely erotic pictures as The Snake in the Grass or Love Unbinding the Zone of Beauty. Yet Reynolds was a great force in his time and contemporaries borrowed freely the various elements of his art, particularly his self-assured manner. For twenty years he was the most prominent artist of his day, even in the face of the rising Gainsborough. He pettishly referred to his rival as “the first landscape painter of Europe,” ignoring Gainsborough’s portraiture, which ultimately stemmed from the same source as his-the tradition of van Dyck.