Reynolds was born in Plympton, Devon, on 16 July 1723, the third son of the Rev. Samuel Reynolds, master of the Free Grammar School in the town. Schooled by his father, he showed an early interest in art - his first recorded portrait dates from 1735 - and was apprenticed in London in 1740 to the Devon-born painter Thomas Hudson. After his father’s death in 1745, he took a house in, what is now, Devonport with his two unmarried sisters. However, by 1747 he was spending extended periods in London, where most of his clients lived, with a studio in St Martin’s Lane. The following year, Reynolds was named, by Universal Magazine, as one of the country’s most eminent painters, indeed he was the second youngest on the magazine’s list (only Thomas Gainsborough being younger).
Between 1749 and 1752, Reynolds travelled extensively on the Continent, mostly in Italy, where he was much influenced by the Italian use of colour and shading. On his return, he went to Devon for a few months before settling permanently, and for the rest of his life, in London. He became very successful, painting portraits of many important people, and by 1760 had sufficient wealth to purchase the lease on a large house, with space to show his works and accommodate assistants, by Leicester Fields (now Leicester Square).
Reynolds met Samuel Johnson in 1756, and, a few years later, he set up The Literary Club for a small circle of Johnson’s closest friends (including among others Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith). He also painted Johnson several times. Reynolds was one of the earliest members of the Royal Society of Arts; and he helped found the Society of Artists. With Gainsborough, he established the Royal Academy of Arts, and, in 1768, became its first president, a position he held until his death. During the next ten years or so Reynolds exhibited over 100 pictures at the Royal Academy, considerably more than he had exhibited during the previous decade at the Society of Artists.
During the 1780s Reynolds turned increasingly for inspiration to the art of Flanders and the Low Countries, an interest which led to a two-month tour in 1781. He also focused more on history paintings, something his followers thought provided evidence of a genuine commitment to the cause of high art. His allegiance to the Whig party had become increasingly evident by this time, and several of his closest friends assumed key government positions when the Whigs returned to power in 1782. In 1784 Reynolds was sworn in as principal painter-in-ordinary to the King. After Johnson’s death, in 1784, Reynolds became friendlier with Boswell, who later dedicated his (now famous) biography of Johnson to Reynolds. In 1789 Reynolds lost the sight of his left eye, leading to his retirement; and he died in early 1792. Further biographical information is readily available at Wikipedia, for example, Spartacus, National Museums Liverpool, or Artble.
Writing the entry on Reynolds for the Oxford National Dictionary of Biography (log-in required), Martin Postle sums him up thus: ‘Reynolds dominated the British art world in the second half of the eighteenth century, and any cultural history of the period would not be complete without some recognition of his central role. Many qualities contributed to his success. First and foremost, Reynolds was the most innovative portrait painter of his generation. Despite technical shortcomings and a tendency to sacrifice quality for quantity, his best portraits retain an unrivalled power and physical presence. His professional skills were underpinned by an unswerving personal ambition, tempered with an awareness of what could be realistically achieved in the current artistic climate, and within the bounds of his own particular gifts. Reynolds appreciated the value of patronage and social networks, and despite his own political preferences (he was a thorough whig), established a wide circle of acquaintance. He was a loyal and generous friend and loved company.’
Given Reynolds prominence in 18th century society, references to him can be found in many diaries of the time, and, such was his influence, for long after his death too. His name has occurred in several different Diary Review articles. He is mentioned often in the diary of Joseph Farington, a later painter - see Farington on Dance; John Churton Collins, a writer and literary critic, wrote a book on Reynolds - see I thought I was out of the woods; and the poet and teacher William Johnson, later called Cory, was distantly related to Reynolds - see A peculiar pleasure.
Reynolds himself was not a regular diarist. That said, he did keep pocket books that are referred to as diaries, which were extensively mined by William Cotton for Sir Joshua Reynolds and his works, gleanings from his diary, unpublished manuscripts, and from other sources (Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts; London, 1856). This can be read online at Googlebooks. The preface states: ‘The extracts from Sir Joshua’s private Diary contain much that is interesting and amusing, besides giving proof of the astonishing amount of work accomplished by him; for we there learn that he was often in his studio from nine o’clock in the morning till four in the afternoon, and received as many as seven or eight sitters in as many consecutive hours. But when absent from home, he appears to have enjoyed the sports of the field, and on one occasion, in September 1770, we find him hunting and shooting every day during a week’s visit at Saltram.’
In a chapter of the book entitled Reynold’s diary, from 1755 to 1790, Cotton ‘gleans’ ‘a more complete list of his works than has hitherto been published’. Indeed, the vast majority of extracts are simply names of those who have come to sit for portraits. Here is one extract as found in Cotton’s book:
‘Extracts from the Diary
April. The Lady Northumberland’s portrait to be finished.
June. The Duke of Portland.
Frame for the little picture of Master Pelham.
August. To send Mrs. Fortescue’s and Mr. Shirley’s portraits to be copied.’
For a short period in July 1781, during a trip to Flanders and Holland, Reynolds wrote down something akin to a diary, more like notes really. Postle in the ONDB says ‘Reynolds’s detailed journal entries, which were intended ultimately for publication, reveal that the tour was organized around major private collections in the Low Countries and the great altarpieces of Flanders’. In any case, Reynold’s narrative of the journey was first published in 1798 by Cadell & Davies as part of the second volume of The Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds by Edmond Malone. This is freely available online at Internet Archive.
The text of A Journey to Flanders and Holland is almost exclusively taken up with descriptions of paintings, though the final section is more of a treatise on the genius of Rubens. Here are the first three paragraphs.
‘At Ostend, where we landed, July 27, 1781, there are no pictures, and even Bruges affords but a scanty entertainment to a Painter: however, there are a few, which, though not of the first rank, may be worth the attention of a traveller who has time to spare.
In the Cathedral. The high altar; the Adoration of the Magi, by Segers. This picture is justly considered as one of the best of that painter’s works. The part which first obtrudes itself on your attention is one of the kings, who is placed in the front : this figure, not withstanding its great fame, and its acknowledged excellence in many respects, has one great defect; it appears to have nothing to do with the rest of the composition, and has too much the air of a whole-length portrait. What gives it so much this appearance is, the eyes looking out of the picture; that is, he is looking at the person who looks at the picture. This always has a bad effect, and ought never to be practised in a grave historical composition, however successfully it may be admitted in ludicrous subjects, where no business of any kind, that requires eagerness of attention, is going forward.
The second altar on the right from the door is the Nativity, by Otho Venius. Many parts of this picture bring to mind the manner of Rubens, particularly the colouring of the arm of one of the shepherds : but in comparison of Rubens it is but a lame performance, and would not be worth mentioning here, but from its being the work of a man who had the honour to be the master of Rubens.’
And here is the last paragraph of A Journey to Flanders and Holland.
‘To conclude; I will venture to repeat in favour of Rubens, what I have before said in regard to the Dutch school, that those who cannot see the extraordinary merit of this great painter, either have a narrow conception of the variety of art, or are led away by the affectation of approving nothing but what comes from the Italian school.’