The Royal Academy’s first president, Joshua Reynolds, was considered the leading portrait painter of his day and a key figure in the Academy. This painting isn’t a portrait of an actual person, but rather a woman intended to represent the concept of theory.
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 – and he painted all of them.
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. The book was hugely influential on the development of British art (and is still in print today). He argued that painters should look to classical and Renaissance art as their model, and should seek to idealise nature rather than copy it. 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.