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Reynolds

Sir Joshua Reynolds was in his own day a commanding figure, whose authority outlived him and who eventually became a target for Romantic attacks. In Reynolds's day society portraiture had become a monotonous repetition of the same theme. According to the formula, the sitter was to be posed centrally, with the background (curtain, pillar, chair, perhaps a hint of landscape) disposed like a back-drop behind; normally the head was done by the master, the body by a pu­pil or "drapery assistant", who might serve several painters. Pose and expression tended to be regulated to a standard of polite and inex­pressive elegance; the portrait told little about their subjects other than that they were that sort of people who had their portraits painted. They were effigies; life departed.

         It was Reynolds who insisted in his practice that a portrait could and should be also full, complex work of art on many levels; he conceived his portraits in terms of history-painting. Each fresh sitter was not just a physical fact to be recorded, but rather a story to be told. His people are no longer static, but caught between one moment and the next. Reynolds was indeed a consummate producer of char­acter, and his production methods reward investigation. For them he called upon the full repertoire of the Old Masters.

Reynolds did the Grand Tour and remained in Rome spell­bound by the grandeur of Michelangelo, Raphael, Tintoretto and Ti­tian. He acquired a respectable knowledge of European painting of the preceding two centuries, and gave at the Royal Academy of Arts which he helped to found in 1768 - the famous Discourses, which in published form, remain a formidable body of Classical doctrine. In his Discourses Reynolds outlined the essence of grandeur in art and sug­gested the means of achieving it through rigorous academic training and study of the Old Masters. From 1769 nearly all Reynolds's paintings appeared in the Academy. Reynolds's success as a portrait­ist was so great that he was employing studio assistants to lay out the canvases for him and to do much of the mechanical work. The artist's technique was sound, and many of his works of art suffered as a re­suit. After his visit to the Netherlands where he studied the works of Kubens Reynolds's picture surface became far richer. This is particu­larly true of his portrait the Duchess of Devonshire and Her Daugh­ter. Reynolds's state portraits of the King and Queen were never suc­cessful, and he seldom painted for them. There is inevitably something artificial about the grandiloquence of the Classical or Ren­aissance poses in which he painted solid English men and women of his own day, investing them with qualities borrowed from a noble past. Nonetheless, we owe our impression of English aristocracy in (the eighteenth century to his majestic portraits, with their contrived backgrounds of Classical architecture and landscape. Lady Sara Bunbury Sacrificing to the Graces, of 1783, speaks eloquently for itself. Among Reynolds's best works are those in which he departs from the tradition of ceremonial portraiture and abandons himself to inspira­tion, as in The Portrait of Nelly O'Brien, which is aglow with light, warmth and feeling.


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