What Made Sir Joshua Reynolds an Iconic Portrait Artist?

Joshua Reynolds was both a talented artist and a dedicated entrepreneur. But what made him so special?

Jan 28, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

sir joshua reynolds iconic portrait artist


Joshua Reynolds was the artist who defined the genre of English portraiture in the eighteenth century. Reynolds painted anyone who was anyone in England, running a massive workshop. He was also Reynolds was appointed the first President of the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Read on to learn more about Joshua Reynolds’ practice and his business-like approach to art.


Joshua Reynolds and Rococo Portraits

reynolds harrington painting
Jane, Countess of Harrington by Joshua Reynolds, 1778. Source: The Huntington Library, San Marino


Before figuring out what exactly made Joshua Reynolds an outstanding artist, we need to adjust our understanding of art and visual culture. In eighteenth-century England, portrait painting was the dominating art genre, unrivaled by any other form or theme. Moreover, the concept of a portrait as a reflection of one’s personality, uniqueness, and spirit did not yet exist. Portraiture was ubiquitous and practical, serving as a symbol of social status and focusing on class markers more than on someone’s individuality.


Moreover, it hardly ever intended to capture the exact likeness of the sitter. Although the faces remained more or less recognizable, the artist’s goal was to marry reality with idealized perfection which existed only in the realm of art. Just like eighteenth-century landscapes used real nature as vague inspiration rather than a blueprint, portraiture constructed its own version of reality. However, this construction was not deceitful since the audience’s expectations were set according to the dominating ideology.


Joshua Reynolds was both the exemplary portraitist of his time and a successful entrepreneur who occupied his niche according to the standards and expectations of his age. The dominating aesthetic of Rococo, which relied on heavy decoration and organic form, was reflected in his detailed compositions and attention to smaller elements.

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Reynolds’ Background Gave Him the Right Tools to Succeed

reynolds self portrait
Sir Joshua Reynolds by Joshua Reynolds, c.1747-49, via The National Portrait Gallery, London


Joshua Reynolds was born in 1723 in South-West England into a dynasty of highly educated clergymen. Being the third of eleven siblings, he was under no pressure to continue the family tradition. His father planned for Joshua to become a doctor, yet had no objections after his son’s inclination towards arts was revealed. From an early age, Reynolds studied literature and philosophy of Antiquity and grew accustomed to the rules, norms, and expectations of society. For four years, he studied in London under the guidance of the most fashionable artists of the time. Apart from developing his painting skills, Reynolds learned perhaps the most important aspect of his trade—the customer experience.


During Reynolds’ lifetime, the position of artist did not yet have such a romantic and individualistic dimension to it. A painter was not expressing any kind of emotion or hidden truth but offering a practical service in high demand to people of higher status. In the eyes of many art patrons, an artist was another type of servant with a specific set of skills. Although some painters saw this as an insult to their pride, Reynolds felt perfectly at ease. Charming, polite, and witty, he would compliment his sitters and offer them all the required services with eagerness and a smile.


He Spent Three Years in Italy and It Changed His Life

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Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen by Joshua Reynolds, 1773. Source: Tate, London


After learning everything he could from his London masters, young Joshua Reynolds had a great opportunity to travel around Europe and study in Italy, spending three years in Rome and Florence. Traveling, particularly to Italy, was an essential part of a privileged young man’s education. The trip gave him a first-hand look at what was considered the pinnacle of human creation and craftsmanship.


The art of the Italian Renaissance and Antiquity was available either in private collections of patrons, who obviously were not ready to demonstrate them at a stranger’s request, or right on the spot in the ancient ruins of Rome, remains of Pompeii, and other historical sites. For three years, Reynolds studied the Italian Old Masters by copying their works and soon grew confident in himself, perhaps even too confident. He rejected the proposal of studying under the guidance of Pompeo Batoni, the internationally acclaimed portraitist, stating there was nothing he could learn from him.


Being in Rome was a life-changing experience for Reynolds in many ways. Certainly, it became the crucial point of his development as an independent artist, forming not only his style but his theoretical views on art. Later on, he would insist that the art of Antiquity held the key to true harmony and beauty and that artists should rely on its readymade principles instead of resorting to futile experiments. Another transforming occasion was a severe cold that nearly killed Reynolds and left him partially deaf. In his later self-portraits, he would sometimes paint himself with an ear trumpet.


He Had Up To Seven Posing Sessions Per Day

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Miss Susanna Gale by Joshua Reynolds, c.1763-64. Source: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne


One of the particular features of Reynolds’ artistic practice was its enormous scale and mechanical effectiveness, which today may sound soulless, offensive, and opposite to the idea of pure art. However, the story of Joshua Reynolds is in equal part about exceptional artistic talent and exceptional entrepreneurship skills. According to Reynolds’ notes, sometimes he had up to seven posing sessions with clients per day, each session lasting about two hours. During these hours, Reynolds mostly worked on his models’ faces, while the rest of the body was painted in his studio later, using mannequins or assistants as models.


Portrait painting was a fast-paced industry with distinct prices and requirements set by both sides. The most expensive and prestigious type of portrait was a full-body life-sized image. This was available to the selected few, like the members of the Royal family and high nobility. Smaller versions like waist-up or shoulders-up portraits had their nuances, too. Artists would charge a fee for painting hands, jewelry, or specific on-demand details. The price also depended on the person behind the canvas. A master artist running the workshop could paint the entire figure or, for a smaller price paint only the face, leaving the rest to his assistants.


He Gave His Clients Exactly What They Wanted 

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Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse by Joshua Reynolds, 1789. Source: Dulwich Picture Gallery, London


Reynolds went to great lengths to accommodate his clients and cater to their wishes. Present-day viewers are often mesmerized by the lavish dresses, draperies, and fabrics in eighteenth-century portraits, yet in reality, most of the sitters either could not afford these garments or they did not wear them since they had nothing to do with the actual fashion of their era. Many of the clothing items in paintings were inspired by earlier periods in history, thus linking the sitter’s image to those of their ancestors. Reynolds kept a closet of luxurious dresses in his studio and eagerly rented them to his sitters. Taking a closer look at his oeuvre, you may notice that some dresses appear again and again on different women.


Reynolds’ collection of draperies did not exist solely to please his customers. His biggest artistic love was history painting, the classic and expensive genre loved by many but bought by few.  Unable to make a living out of his preferred genre, Reynolds incorporated it into his portraits. Tragic masks, Roman draperies, and the remains of Ancient temples and theaters added extra layers of dramatic intensity to his works.


Each One of His portraits Had a Practical Meaning

reynolds delme painting
Lady Elizabeth Delmé and Her Children by Joshua Reynolds, 1777-79. Source: The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


Each type of portrait has its practical purpose, showcasing a specific facet of a commissioner’s life, ambitions, and inspiration, relying on current political and social norms. For instance, a painting of a gentleman with his hunting dog and a gun surrounded by nature signified not just his interest in hunting but his privilege too. In 1723, the British government passed an act prohibiting unauthorized hunting on someone else’s premises. Thus, the act of painting a gentleman in the woods hunting signified his ownership of the land.


Reynolds also painted portraits of women playing with their children. As adorable as they seem, these portraits had particular functions and reasoning behind them. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau published a groundbreaking treatise Emile, or On Education, proclaiming childhood as a valuable and precious time of learning through nature and emphasizing the importance of mothers caring for their children instead of maids.


Parallel to Rousseau’s writings, the English nobility lived through a demographical crisis. In that environment, family portraits served as signs of good health and bloodline preservation.


Among hundreds of other artists, Joshua Reynolds offered the unique combination of practicality with aestheticism, carefully packing layers of meanings in the exquisite form of Antiquity-inspired composition filled with references to his contemporary culture and history.


Joshua Reynolds Founded The Royal Academy of Arts

joshua reynolds charlotte painting
Portrait of Queen Charlotte by Joshua Reynolds, 1779. Source: The Royal Academy of Arts, London


Although Joshua Reynolds quickly gained recognition among the wealthiest and the most prominent people, his ambitions spread further than simply becoming an outstanding painter of the upper classes. In the late 1760s, Reynolds, as socially active as he was, organized a group of thirty-four painters to sign a petition for establishing the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Prior to Reynolds’ initiative, Great Britain did not have institutions focusing on art education and discourse. King George III approved the idea, and Reynolds was appointed the first President of the Academy.


However, the long-anticipated appointment did not make Reynolds happy. His ambition was to become a court painter, yet the King already had his favorite, a fellow Academy founder called Thomas Gainsborough. Reynolds was granted the honor of painting the King only once and only after the artist questioned the benefits of his position as the Academy President.


Although Reynolds failed to use the presidential post to cement his status, he used his platform to educate other artists and promote his theory of art. Apart from his already mentioned belief in the superiority of Antique and Renaissance art, he devised theories on color and composition. His teachings, however, received a mixed reception. For instance, artist and poet William Blake detested Reynolds’ attempts to find a formula for a great piece of art.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.