Joshua Reynolds was the most successful portrait painter of his day in England as well as a distinguished member of London’s intellectual society.
Reynolds was born on July 16, 1723, in Plympton, Devon, England. His father, a clergyman, conducted a grammar school. Reynolds was one of his pupils, but he preferred sketching on the margins of his Latin exercises to studying. Reynolds also copied drawings at every chance. Apprenticed at age 17 to Thomas Hudson, a popular London portrait painter, Reynolds studied with him for three years. The next few years Reynolds divided between Plymouth and London.
At Plymouth Reynolds met Lord Edgecumbe, who became a lifelong patron. Edgecumbe introduced him to Augustus Keppel, commander of the Mediterranean squadron of the British fleet. Keppel gave him passage to Rome, where for two years Reynolds studied the paintings of the Italian masters. In the drafty galleries of Rome, Reynolds caught a cold that led to permanent deafness.
In 1752 Reynolds returned to London. There Reynolds established himself as a portrait painter, and success came quickly. Nearly every distinguished English family of the time sat for a Reynolds portrait. Reynolds became especially well known for his portrait paintings of women and children. Reynolds never married but maintained a splendid London house and was active in society. In 1764 Reynolds founded the Literary Club, whose members included such famous people as authors Samuel Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith, statesman Edmund Burke, and actor David Garrick.
In 1768 Reynolds became president of the newly founded Royal Academy, and the next year he was knighted by King George III. From 1769 through 1790 Reynolds delivered a "Discourse" at each prize awarding of the Royal Academy. These lectures preserve Reynolds’ ideas on the proper training of artists: learning to draw and to use color, studying masterpieces, and comparing these to nature. The "Discourses" reflect the taste of his time, a balanced appreciation of earlier models and of nature with subjects drawn from history and fable. Reynolds died in London on Feb. 23, 1792.
Reynolds’ portrait paintings give his subjects an appearance of action, though he posed them in attitudes that imitated the paintings of the Italian masters. Reynolds use of vivid colors also reflects his study in Italy. Unfortunately many of Reynolds paintings have faded badly with time.