Joshua Reynolds | Theory is knowledge of what is truly Nature

The influential 18th Century “Grand Style” portrait artist, Sir Joshua Reynolds (PRA FRS FRSA) was born in Plympton, Devon, on 16 July 1723.  He was the 3rd son of the Rev. Samuel Reynolds, master of the Free Grammar School in Plymouth. Reynolds was one of the founders and 1st President of the Royal Academy in London, and was knighted by King George III in 1769.

Having shown an early interest in art, Reynolds was apprenticed in 1740 to the fashionable London portrait painter Thomas Hudson.  Hudson had a collection of old master drawings, including some by Guercino, of which Reynolds made copies. Having left Hudson, in 1743, Reynolds worked for some time as a portrait-painter in Plymouth Dock (now Devonport) returning to London before the end of 1744. Like many painters of this era, Reynolds traveled throughout Europe before returning around 1752-53 and establishing himself in London where he remained for the rest of his life.

He achieved great success and his artwork became prolific. Lord Edgecumbe recommended the Duke of Devonshire and the Duke of Grafton to sit for him; and other peers soon followed; including the Duke of Cumberland, third son of George II. By 1761 Reynolds could command a fee of 80 guineas for a full-length portrait.

Reynolds was one of the earliest members of the Royal Society of Arts; and he helped found the Society of Artists along with Thomas Gainsborough, to establish the Royal Academy of Arts; a spin-off organization. In 1768, Reynolds was made the Royal Academy’s first President, a position he held until his death on 23rd  February, 1792.

He became a devotee of Platonistic philosophy and made extracts in his commonplace book from Theophrastus, Plutarch, Seneca, Ovid, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, John Dryden, and passages on art theory by Leonardo da Vinci amongst many others. The work that came to have the most influential impact was Jonathan Richardson’s An Essay on the Theory of Painting (1715).

Artwork featured above: Theory (1779-1780)

  • Theory is the only ceiling painting by Reynolds. It was commissioned by the Royal Academy for its library in New Somerset House.
  • Theory was surrounded by paintings by Giovanni Battista Cipriani representing Nature, History, Allegory and Fable in the cove of the ceiling.
  • The figure holds a scroll reading: “Theory is knowledge of what is truly Nature“.
  • By placing Theory literally above all these subjects, Reynolds was affirming the intellectual bias of his own art and the intellectual aspirations of the Academy.

To see other artists, see my Artists A-Z page.

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2 Responses to Joshua Reynolds | Theory is knowledge of what is truly Nature

  1. Great Post. I never thought I really liked Reynolds, but having just taught a lesson about him and Gainsborough, I now appreciate him much more. It was also interesting to learn about the beginning of the RA. Just shows, it’s all about education …

    • maryannadair says:

      I agree with you full-hardheartedly. They are both certainly from a similar era and both from the Royal Academy. If you haven’t come across a couple of earlier posts of mine relating to Gainsborough, I offer this post.or to an earlier one relating to one of Gainsborough’s more famous paintings “Pinkie”

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