Reynolds, Sir Joshua

, the most illustrious painter of the English school, was born at Plympton, in Devonshire, July 16, 1723. His ancestors on both sides were clergymen. His father had no adequate provision for the maintenance of his large family, but appears to have liberally encouraged his son’s early attempts in that art, of which he afterwards became so illustrious a professor. When but eight years of age, Joshua had made himself master of a treatise, entitled “The Jesuit’s Perspective,” and increased his love of the art still more, by studying Richardson’s “Treatise on Painting.” In his seventeenth year, he was placed as a pupil under his countryman, Mr. Hudson, whom, in consequence of some disagreement, he left in 1743, and removed to Devonshire for three years, | during which, after some waste of time, which he ever lamented, he sat down seriously to the study and practice of his art. The first of his performances, which brought him into notice, was the portrait of captain Hamilton, father of the present marquis of Abercorn, painted in 1746. About this time he appears to have returned to London.

In 1746, by the friendship of captain (afterwards lord) Keppel, he had an opportunity to visit the shores of the Mediterranean, and to pass some time at Rome. The sketch he wrote of his feelings when he first contemplated the works of Raphael in the Vatican, so honourable to his modesty and candour, has been presented to the public by Mr. Malone, and is a present on which every artist must set a high value. He returned to London in 1752, and soon rose to the head of his profession; an honour which did not depend so much on those he eclipsed, as on his retaining that situation for the whole of a long life, by powers unrivalled in his own or any other country. Soon, after his return from Italy, his acquaintance with Dr. Johnson commenced. Mr. Boswell has furnished us with abundant proofs of their mutual esteem and congenial spirit, and Mr. Malone has added the more deliberate opinion of sir Joshua respecting Dr. Johnson, which may be introduced here without impropriety. It reflects indeed as much honour on the writer as on the subject, and was to have formed part of a discourse to the academy, which, from the specimen Mr. Malone has given, it is much to be regretted he did not live to finish.

Speaking of his own discourses, our great artist says, “Whatever merit they have, must be imputed, in a great measure, to the education which I may be said to have had under Dr. Johnson. I do not mean to say, though it certainly would be to the credit of these discourses if I could say it with truth, that he contributed even a single sentiment to them but he qualified my mind to think justly. No man had, like him, the faculty of teaching inferior minds the art of thinking. Perhaps other men might havg equal knowledge, but few were so communicative. His great pleasure was to talk to those who looked up to him. It was here he exhibited his wonderful powers. In mixed company, and frequently in company that ought to have looked up to him, many, thinking they had a character for learning to support, considered it as beneath them to enlist in the train of his auditors and to such persons he | certainly did not appear to advantage, being often i tuous and overbearing. The desire of shining in conversation was in him indeed a predominant passion; and if it must be attributed to vanity, let it at the same time be recollected, that it produced that loquaciousness from which his more intimate friends derived considerable advantage. The observations which he made on poetry, on life, and on every thing about us, I applied to our art, with what success others must judge.” This short extract is not unconnected with a conjecture which many entertained, that sir Joshua did not compose his lectures himself. In addition to his own declaration here, as far as respects Dr. Johnson, who was chiefly suspected as having a hand in these lectures, Mr. Northcote, who lived some years in his house, says, in his memoirs, “At the period when it was expected he should have composed them, I have heard him walking at intervals in his room till one or two o’clock in the mjorning, and I have on the following day, at an early hour, seen the papers on the subject of his art which had been written the preceding night. I have had the rude manuscript from himself, in his own hand-writing, in order to make a fair copy from it for him to read in public: I have seen the manuscript also after it had been revised by Dr. Johnson, who has’ sometimes altered it to a wrong meaning, from his total ignorance of the subject and of art; but never, to my knowledge, saw the marks of Burke’s pen in any of the manuscripts. The bishop of Rochester, also, who examined the writings of Mr. Burke since his death, and lately edited a part of them, informed a friend that he could discover no reason to think that Mr. Burke had the least hand in the discourses of Reynolds.” And Burke himself, in a letter to Mr. Malone, after the publication of sir Joshua’s life and works, Says, “I have read over some part of the discourses with an unusual sort of pleasure, partly because being faded a little in my memory, they have a sort of appearance of novelty; partly by reviving recollections mixed with melancholy and satisfaction. The Flemish journal I had never seen before. You trace in that, every where, the spirit of the discourses, supported by new examples. He is always the same man; the same philosophical, the same artist-like critic, the same sagacious observer, with the same minuteness, without the smallest degree of trifling.” We may safely say, this is dot the language of one who had himself | contributed much to those discourses. And if neither Johnson nor Burke wrote for Reynolds, to whom else among his contemporaries shall the praise due to those invaluable compositions be given, if Reynolds is to be deprived of it!

In consequence of his connexion with Dr. Johnson, Mr. Reynolds furnished three essays in the Idler, No. 76, on false criticisms on painting, which may be recommended to the serious perusal of many modern connoisseurs; No. 79, on the grand style of painting; and No. 82, on the true idea of beauty; of which Mr. Boswell informs us the last words, “and pollute his canvass with deformity,” were added by Dr. Johnson. These essays have been very properly incorporated with sir Joshua’s works, by Mr. Malone, as they were his first literary attempts, the earnest of those talents which afterwards proved that he was as eminent in the theory as in the practice of his art.

It is much to be lamented, that the world was deprived of this great artist before he had put into execution a plan which his biographer, Mr. Malone says, appears, from some loose papers, to have been revolved in his mind. “I have found,” says that author, “among sir Joshua’s papers, some detached and unconnected thoughts, written occasionally, as hints for a discourse, on a new and singular plan, which he seems to have intended as a history of his mind, so far as concerned his art; and of his progress, studies, and practice; together with a view of the advantages he had enjoyed, and the disadvantages he had laboured under, in the course that he had run: a scheme, from which, however liable it might be to the ridicule of wits and scoffers (of which, he says, he was perfectly aware), he conceived the students might derive some useful documents for the regulation of their own conduct and practice.” Such a composition, from such a man, written after he had spent a long life in successful practice, with none to guide him who had chosen a line of art for himself, stamped with originality; and in which he had to unfold principles, and elucidate them by practice and competent as he was to explain the operations of his own mind could not fail of being interesting and useful in the highest degree.

In 1781, during the summer, he made a tour through Holland and the Netherlands, with a view of examining critically the works of the celebrated masters of the Dutch and Flemish schools. An account of this journey, written | by himself, containing much excellent criticism on the works of Ruhens, Vandyke, Rembrandt, &c. in the churches and different collections at Antwerp, Brussels, Ghent, the Dusseldorf gallery, and at Amsterdam, was published after his death; it concludes with a masterly-drawn character of Rubens. In 1783, in consequence of the emperor’s suppression of some religious houses, he again visited Flanders, purchased some pictures by Rubens, and devoted several more days to the contemplation and further investigation of the performances of that great man. On his return, he remarked that his own pictures wanted force and brilliancy, and he appeared, by his subsequent practice, to have benefited by the observations he had made. This year, on the death of Ramsay, he was made principal painter in ordinary to his majesty, and continued so till his death.

For a very long period he had enjoyed an almost uninterrupted state of good health, except that in 1782 he was for a short time afflicted with a paralytic stroke. A fewweeks, however, perfectly restored him, and he suffered no inconvenience from it afterwards. But in July 1789, whilst he was painting the portrait of lady Beauchamp, he found his sight so much affected, that it was with difficulty he could proceed with his work; and notwithstanding every assistance that could be procured, he was in a few months totally deprived of the use of his left eye. After some struggles, he determined, lest his remaining eye should also suffer, to paint no more: and though he was thus deprived of a constant employment and amusement, he retained his usual spirits, and partook of the society of his friends with apparently the same pleasure to which he had been accustomed; and was amused by reading, or hearing others read to him. In October 1791, however, his spirits began to fail him, and he became dejected, from an apprehension that an inflamed tumour, which took place over *he eye that had perished, might occasion the destruction of the other also. Meanwhile he laboured under a more dangerous disease, which deprived him both of his spirits and his appetite. During this period of great affliction to all his friends, his malady was by many supposed to be imaginary, and it was erroneously conceived, that by exertion he might shake it off; for he was wholly unable to explain to the physicians the nature or seat of his disorder. Jt was only about a fortnight before his death that it was | found to be in the liver; the inordinate growth of which, as it afterwards appeared, had incommoded all the functions of life. Of this disease, which he bore with great fortitude and patience, he died, after a confinement of three months, at his house in Leicester-square, on Thursday evening, February 23, 1792, at the age of sixty-nine.

In stature, sir Joshua Reynolds was rather under the middle size, of a florid complexion, roundish, blunt features, and a lively pleasing aspect; not corpulent, though somewhat inclined to it; and extremely active. With manners uncommonly polished and agreeable, he possessed a constant flow of spirits, which rendered him at all times a most desirable companion: always ready to be amused, and to contribute to the amusement of others, and anxious to receive information on every subject that presented itself: and though he had been deaf almost from the time of his return from Italy; yet, by the aid of an ear-trumpet, he was enabled to partake of the conversation of his friends with great facility and convenience. On the 3d of March his remains were interred in the crypt of St. Paul’s, near the tomb of sir Christopher Wren, with every honour that could be shewn to worth and genius by an enlightened nation; a great number of the most distinguished persons attending the funeral ceremony, and his pall being supported by three dukes, two marquisses, and five other noblemen.

In many respects, both as a man and a painter, sir Joshua Reynolds cannot be too much studied, praised, and imitated by every one who wishes to attain the like eminence. His incessant industry was never wearied into despondency by miscarriage, nor elated into neglect by success. Either in his painting-room, or wherever else he passed his time, his mind was devoted to the charms of his profession. All nature, and all art, was his academj r and his reflection was ever on the wing, comprehensive, vigorous, discriminating, and retentive. With taste to perceive all* the varieties of the picturesque, judgment to select, and skill to combine what would serve his purpose, few have ever been empowered by nature to do more from the fund of their own genius: and none ever endeavoured more to take advantage of the labours of others. He made a splendid and useful collection, in which no expence wa? spared. His house was filled, to the remotest corners, with casts from the antique statues, pictures, drawings, and | prints, by various masters of all the different schools. Those he looked upon as his library, at once objects of amusement, of study, and competition. After his death they were sold by auction, with his unclaimed and unfinished works, and, together, produced the sum of 16,947l. 7s. 6d. The substance of his whole property, accumulated entirely by his pencil, and left behind after a life in which he freely parted with his wealth, amounted to about 80,000l.

The acknowledged superiority of sir Joshua Reynolds’s professional talents, and the broad basis on which it is founded, makes it now unnecessary to be collecting suffrages to add weight to the general opinion; but a review of those powers which rank him as a man of genius, and distinguish him among the most eminent of his profession, may not be without its interest.

His early education was not strictly academic, as he himself regrets; nor to any extent did he ever cultivate the elementary principles of design, but, as portraits were to shape his fortune, facility of composition, or laborious application to the refinements of an outline, were less necessary. Whether he would have been as eminent in historical painting as he was in that department which it was his lot to pursue, would be now an inquiry as useless as unsatisfactory. That his powers were great in whatever way they were employed, will be readily acknowledged; his taste was too refined, and his judgment too correct, to tolerate defects which were not counterbalanced by some advantages; but as his early practice was exclusively devoted to portraits, and as it was the chief employment of his whole life, it cannot remain a subject of choice to what branch of his profession a fair analysis of his merit ought to be referred.

From the first examples of sir Joshua, as well as from his own confession, on seeing the works of Raphael in the Vatican, it would seem evident that the ornamental parts of the art had absorbed his previous studies, and made the deepest impression on his mind. Little, therefore, could be wanting to induce him to pursue that plan of study, which at the same time that it was the most congenial to his feelings, was in the highest degree important to give interest to individual representation. In pursuing his studies when abroad, he embraced the whole field before him: but his time was not spent in collecting or making servile | copies, but in contemplating the principles of the great masters, that he might the more effectually do what he has recommended to others, follow them in the road without treading in their steps; and no man ever appropriated to himself with more admirable skill their extensive and varied powers.

The style of portrait-painting by Hudson and Ramsay, who were the only persons of any practice when sir Joshua returned from abroad, was uniformly dry and hard, without any feeling for chiar-oscura, and with little diversity of attitude and expression; the full dress, which the custom of the day prescribed, prescribed also limits to their imaginations, and they never gave themselves the trouble to discriminate between the character of nature, and the character of fashion. Sir Joshua, with a more comprehensive view of his art, shewed how portrait might be generalized, so as to identify the individual man with the dignity of his thinking powers. In dress, he selected and adopted what was most conformable to the character of his subject, without implicitly following the fashion or offending the prejudice which it begets.

In the pursuit of those high attainments to which he arrived, he evidently had Rembrandt and Correggio more particularly in his mind. The magical effect, and richness of colouring of the Dutch master, seems to have been with him a constant source of reflection and experiment to rival his inimitable powers. Correggio gave all that grace and harmony could supply, and sir Joshua in his infantine portraits, is beyond all competition without an equal. His female portraits are also designed with an exquisite feeling of taste and elegance; and for that variety of composition which pervades his works, it will be in vain to seek a rival in the most illustrious of his predecessors.

His works of the historical kind shew great strength of mind, and leave us to regret that this land of portrait painting had not given him equal opportunity to cultivate it; but, from the want of that habit which practice would have given him, he was used to say that historical effort cost him too much. He better knew what he wanted than possessed a promptitude of giving form and substance to his feelings. His count Ugolino, for pathos and grandeur of design, perhaps yields to no composition that was ever made of that subject; and his Holy Family, when combined with it, will | serve to show, at one view, the comprehensiveness and diversity of his genius.

The colouring of sir Joshua, which has been deservedly the subject of the highest admiration and praise, has also been the most familiar topic of animadversion and censure. By the jocose he has been charged with “coming off with flying colours,” but by less indulgent friends, with the more serious accusation of having made experiments at their expense. In the pursuit of excellence, he was certainly not content with the common routine of practice; and, as he thought for himself, so he invented new methods of embodying those thoughts. That he was sometimes unsuccessful cannot be denied; but one failure seems to have had a hundred voices to report it, and in arithmetical proportion to have increased as envy was created by his transcendant superiority. Upon due reflection, however, when the space is considered through which he passed to arrive at the high professional rank he acquired, there can be little doubt that the astonishment will be, not at the many, but the few exceptionable works he produced; and even of these it is no hyperbole to say, that as long as the true principles of art are admired, his “faded pictures” will be found to possess a power of mind which has not often been surpassed even by the best productions of his own time. 1


Life prefixed to his works by Malone. Life by Northcote. Pilkington. For the character of sir Joshua as an artist we were indebted to Rich. Duppa, esq. who drew it up for the British Essayists, vol. XXXIII. preface.