Explore a self-portrait by Joshua Reynolds

Self-portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds, PRA (c.1780) by Joshua ReynoldsRoyal Academy of Arts

Joshua Reynolds was Britain’s leading portraitist in the 1700s, one of 34 founders of the Royal Academy and its first president. He courted aristocracy, celebrity and royalty to establish himself as a prominent, sought-after cultural figure.

Reynolds produced around 30 paintings and drawings of himself over his career. In part he used self-portraiture to experiment with new techniques, facial expressions and compositions, but also to raise his own status as an artist, celebrity and intellectual. This portrait was hung in the grand rooms of the RA – the perfect spot to be seen by many prestigious visitors.

He’s dressed himself in the hat and robes associated with the Doctorate of Civil Law which had been given to him by the University of Oxford in 1773 – a visual reminder that he’s a well-educated academic authority.

Although, these robes could also be a dig at a fellow Royal Academy founder, the architect William Chambers, who derailed Reynolds’ attempts to introduce official robes for Academicians (with a special robe for the President) five years previously.

This scroll probably refers to Reynolds’s Discourses on Art – a series of lectures on his theory of art, delivered at the Royal Academy. The lectures were so popular that they were published in writing and widely disseminated.

In the arrangement of this painting, Reynolds is alluding to a painting by the Dutch 17th-century artist Rembrandt, Aristotle contemplating a Bust of Homer (details), which depicts an ancient Greek philosopher with his hand on a stone bust of an ancient Greek poet.

Reynolds believed that artists would achieve excellence by studying the art of the Italian Renaissance and of ancient Greece and Rome. The bust in this painting is the Renaissance artist Michelangelo, who’s positioned leaning towards Reynolds in deference.

Reynolds was a big fan of Michelangelo – he thought his ideas were “vast and sublime” and his artistic style was “the language of the Gods”. and probably painted this bust from a cast that he owned. He finished his fifteenth and final Discourse by stating: “I should desire that the last words which I should pronounce in this Academy, and from this place, might be the name of MICHEL ANGELO”.

Reynolds noted that Rembrandt’s works had “little more than one spot of light in the midst of a large quantity of shadow”, and he uses the same technique here. Light directed from the left highlights Reynolds's cheek and hand and the bust’s forehead while the rest of the painting is in shadowy contrast.

Learn more about Joshua Reynolds through his objects in the RA Archive – including books, letters, diaries, and a lock of his hair.

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