Richard Wilson led the way. Son of a Welsh clergyman, he came to London at fifteen, and made a living by painting portraits. In 1749 he went to Italy; there and in France he absorbed the heritage of Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, and learned to value historical and landscape painting above portraiture. Back in England, he painted landscapes luminous with atmosphere but cluttered with gods, goddesses, and other classic ruins. Especially beautiful is The Thames at Twickenham ,16 which catches the spirit of an English summer day—bathers lolling, trees and sailboats hardly moved by the quiet breeze. But the English would not buy landscapes; they wanted portraits to preserve their faces in their prime. Wilson persisted. He lived in poverty in a half-furnished room in Tottenham Court Road, and sweetened his bitterness with alcohol. In 1776 the Royal Academy rescued him by making him its librarian. The death of a brother left him a small property in Wales; he spent his final years there in such obscurity that no journal mentioned his death (1782).
By contrast the career of Reynolds was a lifelong pageant of honors and prosperity. He was fortunate in being born (1723) to a Devonshire clergyman who kept a Latin school and loved books. Among these Joshua found an Essay on the Whole Art … of Painting(1719) by Jonathan Richardson. This inflamed him with a desire to be a painter, and his sympathetic parents indulged his choice; they sent him to London to study with Thomas Hudson, a Devon man who had married Richardson’s daughter and was then the most courted portrait painter in England. In 1746 the father died, and the young artist set up house with his two sisters in what is now Plymouth. In that famous port he met sailors and commanders, painted their portraits, and made precious friendships. When Captain Augustus Keppel was commissioned to take gifts to the Dey of Algiers he offered Joshua free passage to Minorca, for he knew that the youth longed to study in Italy. From Minorca Reynolds made his way to Rome (1750).
He remained in Italy three years, painting and copying. He labored to discover the methods used by Michelangelo and Raphael in achieving line, color, light, shade, texture, depth, expression, and mood. He paid a price, for while copying Raphael in some unheated rooms of the Vatican he caught a cold that apparently damaged his inner ear. Passing to Venice, he studied Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese, and learned how to endow any sitter with the dignity of a doge. On his way home he stopped for a month in Paris, but he found contemporary French painting too feminine for his taste. After a month in Devon he established himself with his sister Frances in London (1753), and remained there for the rest of his life.
Almost at once he caught attention with another portrait of Captain Keppel17—handsome, eager, masterful; here the Vandyck tradition was restored to make portraits as resplendent images of aristocracy. Within two years Reynolds had received 120 sitters, and was recognized as the finest painter in England. His facility was his limitation. He became so absorbed and expert in portraiture that he lacked the time and skill for historical, mythological, or religious pictures. He did well a few, like The Holy Family and The Three Graces,18 but his inspiration was not in them. Nor did his patrons want such pictures; they were nearly all Protestants, who discountenanced religious paintings as encouraging idolatry; they loved nature, but as an adjunct to their personalities or their hunts; they wished to see themselves ageless on their walls, impressing themselves upon posterity. So they came to Reynolds, two thousand of them, and they sent him their wives and children, sometimes their dogs. None went away grieved, for Reynolds’ amiable imagination could always supply what nature had failed to give.
Never has a generation or a class been so fully preserved as in Reynolds’ 630 surviving portraits. Here are thé statesmen of that lusty age: Bute in a splendor of color;19 Burke rather somber for thirty-eight; Fox potbellied, wistful, and noble at forty-four … Here are the writers: Walpole, Sterne, Goldsmith20 looking really like “Poor Poll,” Gibbon with those fat cheeks which the Marquise du Deffand, who could see only with her hands, mistook for “the sitting part of a child,”21 and Boswell22 as proud as if he had created Johnson, and Johnson himself, lovingly painted five times, and sitting in 1772 for the best-known of Reynolds’ portraits of men.23 Here are the deities of the stage: Garrick “torn between the rival Muses of Tragedy and Comedy,” Mary Robinson as Perdita, Mrs. Abington as the Comic Muse, and Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse;24 an enthusiast paid Reynolds seven hundred guineas ($18,200?) for this proud masterpiece.
Most numerous in this incomparable gallery are the aristocrats who gave social order to an individualistic people, triumphant strategy to foreign policy, and a controlling constitution to the king. See them first in their handsome youth, like twelve-year-old Thomas Lister—a picture which, as Reynold’s Brown Boy, challenges the Blue Boy of Gainsborough. Many of them swelled in the girth when their dangerous days were over, like that same Augustus Keppel who had been so presentable as a captain in 1753, but was so full-filled as an admiral in 1780. Despite such rotundities, and the silk and lace of their investiture, Reynolds succeeded in transforming intangible courage and pride into color and line. Take, as example, the powerful form and personality of Lord Heathfield, bold in British red and holding the key to Gibraltar, which he had invincibly defended against a four-year siege by the Spanish and the French.
And so we come to those diai gynaikon, goddesses among women, whom Reynolds found in the wives and daughters of the British aristocracy. Unmarried, he was free to love all of them with his eyes and brush, to straighten their noses, refine their features, arrange their luxuriant hair, and transfigure them with such fluffy, flowing raiment as would make Venus long to be clothed. See Lady Elizabeth Keppel, Marchioness of Tavistock, wearing the courtly robes she had worn years ago as bridesmaid to Queen Charlotte; what would she be without those folds of painted silk enveloping legs that, after all, could not be much different from Xanthippe’s? Sometimes Reynolds tried what he could do with a woman in simple garb; he pictured Mary Bruce, Duchess of Richmond, dressed in a common cloak, and sewing a pattern into a cushion;25 this is a face that could haunt a philosopher’s dreams. Almost as simple in dress and seraphic in profile is Mrs. Bouverie listening to Mrs. Crewe.26 There was a still profounder beauty in the quiet and gentle face of Emma Gilbert, Countess of Mount Edgcumbe;27 this lovely portrait was destroyed by enemy action in the Second World War.
Nearly all these women had children, for part of the aristocratic obligation was to maintain the family and the property in undivided continuity. So Reynolds painted Lady Elizabeth Spencer, Countess of Pembroke, with her six-year-old son, Lord Herbert to be;28and Mrs. Edward Bouverie with her three-year-old Georgiana;29 and this daughter, become Duchess of Devonshire (the gay beauty who with kisses bought votes for Fox in his campaign for Parliament), with her three-year-old daughter, another Georgiana, the future Countess of Carlisle.30
Finally, and perhaps the most attractive of all, the children themselves, a full gallery of them, nearly all individualized as unduplicable souls, and sympathetically understood in the insecurity and wonderment of youth. The world knows Reynolds’ masterpiece in this sector, The Age of Innocence ,31 which he painted in 1788, in the last years of his vision; but how soon his understanding of childhood reached an almost mystic intuition can be seen in his indescribably beautiful portrait of Lord Robert Spencer, aged eleven,32painted in 1758. Thereafter he painted them at every age: at age one Princess Sophia Matilda; at two years Master Wynn with his lamb; at three Miss Bowles with her dog; at four Master Crewe in a perfect imitation of Henry VIII, and, about the same age, the “Strawberry Girl”;33 at five the Brummell boys William and George (“Beau Brummel” to be); at six Prince William Frederick; at seven Lord George Conway; at eight Lady Caroline Howard; at nine Frederick, Earl of Carlisle; and so on to youth and marriage and children.
Reynolds admitted that he preferred titled sitters; “the slow progression of things naturally makes elegance and refinement the last effect of opulence and power”34 and only the rich could pay the £ 300 that he asked for “a whole length with two children.”35 In any case he had struck gold, and soon earned £ 16,000 a year. In 1760 he bought a house at 17 Leicester Square, then the most select quarter of London; he furnished it luxuriously, collected Old Masters, and took for his studio a chamber as large as a ballroom. He had his own coach, with painted panels and gilded wheels; he asked his sister to drive in it about town, for he believed that such an advertisement of prosperity would bring more.36 In 1761 he was knighted. He was received everywhere, and himself played host to genius, beauty, and class; he had more literary men at his table than any other man in England.37 To him Goldsmith dedicated The Deserted Village, and Boswell the Life of Samuel Johnson. It was Reynolds who in 1764 founded “The Club” to give Johnson a forum of his peers.
He must have loved Johnson, he made so many portraits of him. He made even more of himself. He was not blessed with good looks: his face was florid and scarred by childhood smallpox; his features were blunt, his upper lip had been disfigured by a fall in Minorca. At thirty he pictured himself shading his eyes and trying to pierce a maze of light and shade to catch the soul behind a face.38 He painted himself at fifty in his doctoral robes,39 for Oxford had just made him a doctor of civil law. Finest of the series is theportrait in the National Gallery, about 1775; his face is now more refined, but his hair is gray and his hand is cupped to his ear, for he was going deaf.
When the Royal Academy of Arts was founded in 1768 Reynolds was by common consent made its president. For fifteen years he opened its seasons with a discourse to the students. Boswell was among the friends who sat in the front row at the first discourse (January 2, 1769). Many who heard these addresses were surprised at their literary excellence; some thought that Burke or Johnson had written them, but Sir Joshua had learned much from his associations, and had developed a style, as well as a mind, of his own. Naturally, as an Academician, he stressed the importance of study; he deprecated the notion that genius may dispense with schooling and hard work; he derided “this phantom of inspiration,” and insisted that “labor is the only price of solid fame.”40Furthermore, “every opportunity should be taken to discountenance that false and vulgar opinion—that rules are the fetters of genius.”41 There should be three stages in the normal development of an artist: first, tutelage—learning the rules, draftsmanship, coloring, modeling; second, studying those masters who have received the approbation of time; through such studies “those perfections which lie scattered among various masters are now united in one general idea, which is henceforth to regulate the student’s taste and enlarge his imagination. … The third and last period emancipates the student from subjection to any authority but what he shall himself judge to be supported by reason.”42 Only then should he innovate. “Having well established his judgment and stored his memory, he may now without fear try the power of his imagination. The mind that has been thus disciplined may be indulged in the wildest enthusiasm, and venture to play on the borders of the wildest extravagance.”43
Hogarth had rejected the Old Masters as “Black Masters,” and had advised a realistic portrayal of nature. Reynolds thought that this should be merely a preparation for a more idealistic art. “Nature herself is not to be too closely copied. … The wish of the genuine painter must be more extensive: instead of endeavoring to amuse mankind with the minute neatness of his imitations, he must endeavor to improve them by the grandeur of his ideas. … [He] must strive for fame by captivating the imagination.”44Everything in nature is imperfect from the standpoint of beauty, has in it some blemish or defect; the artist learns to eliminate these from his creations; he combines in one ideal the excellences of many deficient forms; “he corrects nature by herself, her imperfect state by her more perfect. … This idea of the perfect state of nature, which the artist calls the Ideal Beauty, is the great leading principle by which the works of genius are conducted.” To distinguish the faulty from the perfect, the noble from the base, and to school and chasten and exalt the imagination, the artist must enlarge himself with literature and philosophy, and by “the conversation of learned and ingenious men.”45 So Reynolds had done.
In 1782 he suffered a paralytic stroke, from which he partially recovered. For seven years more he continued to paint. Then his left eye clouded, and soon lost its vision; in 1789 the right eye began to fail, and he put down his brush, despondent that almost total blindness was to be added to the semi-deafness which since his twenty-seventh year had forced him to use an ear trumpet. On December 10, 1790, he delivered the last of his discourses. He reaffirmed his faith in the academic and conservative precepts of his earlier addresses, and renewed his counsel to study line before color, and the classic-painters before attempting innovation. He ended with a paean to Michelangelo:
Were I now to begin the world again, I would tread in the steps of that great master; to kiss the hem of his garment, to catch the slightest of his perfections, would be glory and distinction enough for an ambitious man.... I reflect, not without vanity, that these discourses bear testimony of my admiration of that truly divine man; and I should desire that the last word which I should pronounce in this Academy, and from this place, might be the name of Michael Angelo.46
The repentant portraitist died on February 23, 1792, and nine noblemen were proud to bear his remains to St. Paul’s.