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Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723 - 1792)

RA Collection: People and Organisations

The Royal Academy’s first president, Joshua Reynolds, was considered the leading portrait painter of his day and a key figure in the Academy. Still in print today, and widely translated, his groundbreaking Discourses in Art were hugely influential on the development of British art.

The son of a Devonshire reverend and schoolmaster, Reynolds received a comprehensive education before being apprenticed to the portrait painter Thomas Hudson aged 17. In 1749, he was invited to join the HMS Centurion on a voyage to the Mediterranean; Reynolds disembarked in Rome and stayed there for two years, studying the Old Masters. While in Rome he suffered from a bad cold which left him partially deaf so that he often carried an ear trumpet round with him, and was often depicted carrying the trumpet.

Soon after his return, Reynolds set up a studio in London and quickly established himself as a sought-after portrait painter, making important aristocratic connections in the process. His circle of friends included 18th-century notables such as the writer Dr Samuel Johnson, actor and playwright David Garrick and statesman Edmund Burke. He painted memorable portraits of all of them.

Reynolds played a central role in organising the group of 34 artists and architects who signed a petition to found a Royal Academy of Arts, which was to hold annual exhibitions of living artists’ work (now known as the Summer Exhibition) and establish a free art school. After King George III approved the petition, Reynolds was unanimously elected the Academy’s President and knighted the following year. However, Reynolds was not a court favourite and painted the King only once, in a commission for the opening of the Royal Academy’s first official home at Somerset House in 1780.

Between 1769 and 1790, Reynolds set out his theories on art in a series of fifteen lectures in the Royal Academy Schools, published as Discourses on Art. He argued that painters should look to classical and Renaissance art as their model and should seek to idealise nature rather than copy it, setting out what would become known as the “grand manner” of painting. Reynolds positioned paintings of epic, historic scenes as the highest genre of art, despite the fact that high demand for his portraits meant that he rarely painted them himself.

Reynolds used his knowledge of the Old Masters to invigorate many of his portraits. His full-length portrait of Captain Keppel depicting the naval commander energetically striding forward is actually based on the classical statue of the Apollo Belvedere. Some artists such as Nathanial Hone felt he was too reliant of Old Masters and painted a picture titled The Conjurer in which prints of Old Masters whirl around the conjurer which was a veiled reference to his practice. Another Royal Academician, Thomas Gainsborough, fell out with Reynolds for years before seeking reconciliation on his deathbed, writing that he had always “admired and sincerely loved Sir Joshua Reynolds”.

Reynolds’s death was greatly mourned. When he died in 1792, Edmund Burke’s eulogy honoured him as “the first Englishman who added the praise of the elegant arts to the other glories of his country”. His body lay in the Royal Academy before being moved to St. Paul’s Cathedral and the procession included ninety one carriages carrying many distinguished persons, and was followed by all the Academicians and students from the RA Schools. There is a statue by Alfred Drury, installed in 1931 and around this statue which still greets visitors to the Royal Academy today. The fountains and lights arranged around the statue reflect the alignment of planets, the moon and stars at midnight on the night of Reynolds’s birth.


Royal Academician

Foundation Member

Born: 16 July 1723 in Plympton, Devon, England, United Kingdom

Died: 23 February 1792

Nationality: British

Elected RA: 10 December 1768

President from: 1768 - 1792

Gender: Male

Preferred media: Painting

Works by Sir Joshua Reynolds in the RA Collection

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Works after Sir Joshua Reynolds in the RA Collection

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Works associated with Sir Joshua Reynolds in the RA Collection

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Associated books

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Associated archives

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