Faded Master Of Experimentation

A new exhibition tries to resurrect the reputation of Sir Joshua Reynolds

Art Asia
An innovator known for his "fugitive colours": Joshua Reynolds in an early self-portrait, c. 1747-9 (National Portrait Gallery London)

Sir Joshua Reynolds’s reputation has had its ups and downs. When in 1768 he became the first president of the Royal Academy he found himself the ruler of the official art world in Great Britain and thus, as the embodiment of the establishment, a bête noire for a succession of radical artists. William Blake reviled him (“This Man was Hired to Depress Art”) and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood derided him as “Sir Sloshua”. Although Reynolds was appointed Principal Painter in Ordinary to George III, the royal family’s continued preference was for Gainsborough. He had his supporters too: Turner, for example, admired him so much that he requested that he be buried next to Reynolds in St Paul’s Cathedral.

Reynolds’s public role has often tended to obscure an objective view of his merits as a painter; not least the fact that he was one of the most innovative technicians of the age. His incessant experimentation was far from universally successful; he became known in his lifetime for his “fugitive colours”, referring to his pigments, especially the red lake used in flesh tones, that would rapidly lose their hue. At his death in 1792 one obituary bemoaned the “chemic experiments, which, whatever brilliancy they may lend his colours for the present day, certainly will add to the fading powers of time upon the finest tints.” The writer was prescient and Reynolds is still frequently dismissed as a painter of time-aged brown portraits rather than as an innovator. It is this latter aspect of his work that is the subject of the Wallace Collection’s new exhibition, Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint (from March 12).

According to one of his pupils, James Northcote, “Every picture of Sir Joshua’s was an experiment in art made by an ingenious man.” By this he meant not only his attempts to emulate the Old Masters in style but also in tinkering with technique in an attempt to match their effects. As well as painting on canvas he painted, some 50 times, on wooden panels—a support long out of fashion—and on metal too (the large copper sheet he used for a portrait of Samuel Whitbread was probably supplied by the brewer himself). And while he used the regular pigments that could be bought ready-made from professional colourmen Reynolds would also mix non-standard ingredients with his paint—beeswax, spermaceti wax (from sperm whale oil) and various resins among them—with the result that his paint surfaces could often become unstable, cracking or deliquescing.

There is indeed a story of the wife of a merchant with interests in the West Indies who had his portrait painted by Reynolds before he set sail to visit his plantations. A matter of weeks later the paint began to slide off the canvas which the wife took as a portent that her husband was in danger of being lost at sea. She demanded that Reynolds rush round to touch up her husband’s face and thus ensure his safe return. The precaution apparently worked.

Reynolds’s technical restlessness was more than merely an effort to uncover the secrets of earlier painters, it was also, as the waspish diarist Joseph Farington astutely noted, an endeavour “to reach something yet unattained either by himself or others”. He wanted to be a present and future master rather than merely an old one. This motivation underlay his enormous output—some 2,000 portraits as well as numerous “fancy pictures” and history pieces. It also meant that his original idea for a composition was not necessarily the one that emerged: for example, of The Infant Hercules Strangling the Serpents, commissioned by Catherine the Great, he noted matter of factly that “there were ten pictures under it, some better, some worse”. Reynolds painted by experiment.

This exhibition of 20 paintings as well as other material has sprung out of the Reynolds Research Project, which was instigated to examine the Wallace Collection’s own rich cluster of his pictures. The Reynolds who is emerging is a far more complex figure than that of simply a grandee painter but rather a man who, in his desire to “avoid insipidity”, was also an Enlightenment empiricist. The contemporary with whom Reynolds is usually paired is Gainsborough but a more fruitful comparison might be made with a non-painter, the fully-fledged scientist-artist Josiah Wedgwood.

A portraitist whose colours have remained undimmed is on view at the National Portrait Gallery in Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends (until May 25). John Singer Sargent rarely painted those close to him on commisssion but rather used the intimacy as an excuse for more informal poses and en plein air settings. The 70 paintings here are remarkable not just for their skill but as a record of his wide acquaintance. As a celebrated international figure, born in America and living at various points in both France and England, he was friendly with many of the great artistic figures of his time, and he painted them.

The roster includes W.B. Yeats, Monet, Ellen Terry, Rodin and Robert Louis Stevenson. Both of his surviving Stevenson portraits, for example, are included here—one of him sitting and smoking, the other walking across a room—and they show an elongated figure, totally at ease in the painter’s presence.

Indeed, ease is the defining characteristic of almost all the works here, the familiarity of an old friend being enough to disperse any lingering discomfort with the idea of posing. In Group with Parasols of 1904-05, Sargent’s subjects have forgotten about him altogether and he paints two men and two women asleep on a sunny bank in a tangle of disordered limbs—an Après Déjeuner sur L’herbe. It is a painting of wondrous facility and spontaneity. When he painted like this, Sargent was a friend with extraordinary benefits.