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Miss Bowles, 1775

Photo credit: Wikipedia

I believe we have all heard of Sir Joshua Reynolds RA FRS FRSA (16 July 1723 – 23 February 1792).  He was born in Plympton, Devon.  His father, who had been a student at Balliol, Oxford, did not send his sons to university.

In 1640, Reynolds, who was fond of the arts and showed promise as an artist, apprenticed under Thomas Hudson As a pupil of Thomas Hudson, he copied the Old Masters Hudson had in his collection.  He left after three years rather than the customary four and went to Plymouth Doc (now Devonport) where he worked as a portrait-painter  After his father died, in 1745, he remained in Plymouth Doc and shared a house with his sisters.

Rome (1749 – 1752)

When he returned to England, it was not long before Reynolds settled in London where his sister was his housekeeper.  He had “connections,” as we would say.  Lord Edgecumbe, recommended the Duke of Devonshire and the Duke of Grafton to sit for him.  His clients must have been pleased as others followed.

“The Club”

In 1764, Reynolds founded a literary club, “The Club,” which could be compared to Madame Marie Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin‘s Paris salon.  Madame Geoffrin (26 June 1699 –  6 October 6, 1777) was hostess to encyclopédistes and France’s intelligentsia.  Habitués, or regulars, needed only contribute a fine mind and good manners.

Madame Geoffrin`s salon in 1755, by Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier. Oil on canvas, Château de Malmaison, Rueil – Malmaison, France

(please click on the picture to enlarge it)

Similarly, members of “The Club” were untitled men of genius.  However, “The Club” differed from Madame Geoffrin’s salon in that it was a man’s club.  Reynolds was also a Freemason, another fraternity.  Members of “The Club” were, among possible others, Dr Johnson, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, James Boswell and Richard Sheridan, all of whom were noted intellectuals. (Sir Joshua Reynolds, Wikipedia)  However, Reynolds was knighted by George III, in 1769, thereby acquiring a title.  Later, in 1784, he became painter to the king.

The Royal Academy of Arts

Reynolds was a member of the incorporated Society of Artists and, with Thomas Gainsborough (christened 14 May 1727 – 2 August 1788), he established the Royal Academy of Arts.  He was its first president and remained its president until his death.

Beginning in 1769, Reynolds delivered lectures to students of the Royal Academy.  In one of these lectures he stated that he was of the opinion that “invention, strictly speaking is little more than a new combination of those images which have been previously gathered and deposited in the memory.” (Sir Joshua Reynolds, Wikipedia)

Opinions differ regarding Reynolds and the Royal Academy.  William Blake‘s  Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses in 1808 are “vitriolic,” (Sir Joshua Reynolds, Wikipedia) but J. M. W. Turner requested he be laid to rest at Reynolds’ side. James Northcote RA (22 October 1746 – 13 July 1831), who lived for four years as Reynolds’ pupil, wrote to his family “I know him thoroughly, and all his faults, I am sure, and yet almost worship him.(Sir Joshua Reynolds, Wikipedia)


Many opposed Reynold’s “grand style,” or academic painting, a common phenomenon.  As we have seen, members of Russia’s Mir iskusstva also struggled to free themselves from the constraints of academic painting and, according to André Breton, surrealism was a revolutionary movement.

Yet, although I love the art of William Blake, I cannot find anything wrong with the two portraits I have chosen to feature.

Just below is The Strawberry Girl, 1810.

“V’adoro, pupille” from Giulio Cesare
Karina Gauvin FR Karina Gauvin EN.

© Micheline Walker
23 September 2012
updated 24 October 2018