Born in Devon in 1723 to Rev Samuel Reynolds, master of the Free Grammar School in Plympton, Joshua Reynolds began his apprenticeship in 1740 with the portraitist Thomas Hudson. By 1743 he had set himself up as a portrait painter, at first relying on work in his native West Country. In 1749 he encountered Commodore Augustus Keppel, who offered to take him to the Mediterranean about the HMS Centurion. After five months in Port Mahon, he reached Rome in 1750 and remained there for two years of intensive study of the Italian masters.
In 1752 he toured northern Italy in a homebound journey that also took him to Paris. He was back in London in October 1752, accompanied by an Italian assistant, Giuseppe Marchi, who remained with him for the rest of his life. Reynolds was able to respond to the strong demand for portraiture in England with a visual sophistication unknown since the days of Van Dyck.
He soon became the dominant artistic personality of his time. In part this came through vigorous social activity, his friendship with such intellectuals as Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke, membership of the Dilettanti Society and so forth.
His status was reflected in his commissions, including for the portrait of James Maitland, 7th Earl of Lauderdale 1759, depicted in his extravagant coronation robes comprising a crimson velvet cloak with white fur cape and collar, with three rows of ermine indicating his status as earl. An elaborate, twisting column on the left is a type known as a Solomonic column, on the grounds that it imitates a set of columns in Saint Peter’s, Rome, supposedly brought to Italy by Constantine the Great from the Temple of Solomon.
In 1760 Reynolds became the first president of the newly established Royal Academy of Arts, an institution with which he then exhibited until the year before his death. Between 1759-60 Reynolds also delivered a series of highly-influential lectures (known as the ‘Discourses’) to the Academy which are the most articulate statements of art theory produced in England to that date.
His further travels included visits to Paris in 1768 and 1771 and trips to the Netherlands and Germany in 1781 and to the Southern Netherlands in 1785. His portrait practice remained extremely busy. His assistants included at different times Thomas Beach who served an apprenticeship in c1760-2 and James Northcote who was an assistant between 1771-6.
The numerous honours Reynolds received included a knighthood in 1769 and his appointment as Principal Painter to George III, in succession to Ramsay, in 1784. From 1789 he suffered problems with his eyes and was obliged effectively to retire. Although known chiefly for ‘grand manner’ portraiture, he also made experiments with varying degrees of success in historical and fancy subjects.