Sir Joshua Reynolds
by Gilbert Stuart
Note: The following is the introduction to the 1901 Cassell and Company edition of Reynolds' "Seven Discourses on Art"
It is a happy memory that associates the foundation of our Royal
Academy with the delivery of these inaugural discourses by Sir Joshua Reynolds,
on the opening of the schools, and at the first annual meetings for the
distribution of its prizes. They laid down principles of art from the point of
view of a man of genius who had made his power felt, and with the clear good
sense which is the foundation of all work that looks upward and may hope to
live. The truths here expressed concerning Art may, with slight adjustment of
the way of thought, be applied to Literature or to any exercise of the best
powers of mind for shaping the delights that raise us to the larger sense of
In his separation of the utterance of whole truths from
insistance upon accidents of detail, Reynolds was right, because he guarded the
expression of his view with careful definitions of its limits. In the same way
Boileau was right, as a critic of Literature, in demanding everywhere good
sense, in condemning the paste brilliants of a style then in decay, and fixing
attention upon the masterly simplicity of Roman poets in the time of Augustus.
Critics by rule of thumb reduced the principles clearly defined by Boileau to a
dull convention, against which there came in course of time a strong reaction.
In like manner the teaching of Reynolds was applied by dull men to much vague
and conventional generalisation in the name of dignity.
Nevertheless, Reynolds taught essential truths of Art. The
principles laid down by him will never fail to give strength to the right
artist, or true guidance towards the appreciation of good art, though here and
there we may not wholly assent to some passing application of them, where the
difference may be great between a fashion of thought in his time and in ours. A
righteous enforcement of exact truth in our day has led many into a readiness to
appreciate more really the minute imitation of a satin dress, or a red herring,
than the noblest figure in the best of Raffaelle's cartoons. Much good should
come of the diffusion of this wise little book.
Joshua Reynolds was born on the 15th of July, 1723, the son of a
clergyman and schoolmaster, at Plympton in Devonshire. His bent for Art was
clear and strong from his childhood. In 1741 at the age of nineteen, he began
study, and studied for two yours in London under Thomas Hudson, a successful
portrait painter. Then he went back to Devonshire and painted portraits, aided
for some time in his education by attention to the work of William Gandy of
When twenty-six years old, in May, 1749, Reynolds was taken away
by Captain Keppel to the Mediterranean, and brought into contact with the works
of the great painters of Italy. He stayed two years in Rome, and in accordance
with the principles afterwards laid down in these lectures, he refused, when in
Rome, commissions for copying, and gave his mind to minute observation of the
art of the great masters by whose works he was surrounded. He spent two months
in Florence, six weeks in Venice, a few days in Bologna and Parma. "If,"
he said, "I had never seen any of the fine works of Correggio, I should
never, perhaps, have remarked in Nature the expression which I find in one of
his pieces; or if I had remarked it, I might have thought it too difficult, or
perhaps impossible to execute."
In 1753 Reynolds came back to England, and stayed three months
in Devonshire before setting up a studio in London, in St. Martin's Lane, which
was then an artists' quarter. His success was rapid. In 1755 he had one hundred
and twenty-five sitters. Samuel Johnson found in him his most congenial friend.
He moved to Newport Street, and he built himself a studio -- where there is now
an auction room -- at 47, Lincoln's Inn Fields. There he remained for life.
In 1760 the artists opened, in a room lent by the Society of
Arts, a free Exhibition for the sale of their works. This was continued the next
year at Spring Gardens, with a charge of a shilling for admission. In 1765 they
obtained a charter of incorporation, and in 1768 the King gave his support to
the foundation of a Royal Academy of Arts by seceders from the preceding
"Incorporated Society of Artists," into which personal feelings had
brought much division. It was to consist, like the French Academy, of forty
members, and was to maintain Schools open to all students of good character who
could give evidence that they had fully learnt the rudiments of Art. The
foundation by the King dates from the 10th of December, 1768. The Schools were
opened on the 2nd of January next following, and on that occasion Joshua
Reynolds, who had been elected President -- his age was then between forty-five
and forty-six -- gave the Inaugural Address which formed the first of these
Seven Discourses. The other six were given by him, as President, at the next six
annual meetings: and they were all shaped to form, when collected into a volume,
a coherent body of good counsel upon the foundations of the painter's art.