July 16, 2007

Happy Birthday, Sir Joshua Reynolds!

One of Britain's greatest portrait painters, Reynolds was born this day in 1723.

I love Reynolds' portrature for two reasons. First, he is rightly recognized for his highly stylized treatments, bringing out the true character of the sitter, as it were. As this article from the UK Telegraph puts it,

[H]e pays his sitter the compliment of showing him as he really looked, and so makes the nobility of his demeanour all the more believable. Until Reynolds, portraiture had been a branch of painting taken for granted by English artists and patrons. It was his capacity to take portraiture seriously, to treat it as a genre worthy of a great artist, that broke this mould.

'Zactly so. However, I think I appreciate this even more because of the actual subjects he portrayed, the last quarter of the 18th Century in Britain being perhaps my very favorite time and place in history. Here are just a few samples:

First is Sir Joseph Banks, the great naturalist, traveller and patron of science:

Reynolds Banks.jpg

Here again is Samuel "Dictionary" Johnson, writer, linguist, arbiter, professional crank:

Reynolds Johnson.jpg

Among Reynolds' many, many portraits of fashionable ladies, we have Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire:

Reynolds Georgiana.jpg

Who was she, you ask? Well, she was a Hollywood superstar of her age, a political hostess and society queen. She was also a Spencer, the distant aunt of Princess Diana. And like Diana, she was mad as a coot, especially when it came to relationships with men.

Finally, for you military buffs, we have (then) Lt. Col. Banastre "Bloody" Tarleton, the scourge of the American Continental Army:

Reynolds Tarleton.jpg

Just from my thumbnail tag lines, I believe you can get a sense of the way Reynolds treated each of his subjects: scientist, critic, fashionable lady, dashing cavalryman, and yet each easily recognizable as specific individuals, not just types.

As to why I love late 18th Century Britain, well, that's perhaps an essay for when I'm feeling more rested and can give the question some deeper treatment. Suffice to say for the moment that this was one of those times and places in history in which the various social and economic forces came into an exquisite balance, the ancien regime still in place, but mellowed, modified and refreshed by a healthy injection of bourgeois energy and industry, producing between them a cultural sensibility that looked both forward and backward.

Posted by Robert at July 16, 2007 10:50 AM | TrackBack

Is it just the poofy hat, or the way that Reynolds posed Tarleton, including the strategic placement of the cannon, that makes him look very gay?

Posted by: Robert at July 16, 2007 10:12 AM