- The Subject Pictures, and: The Painter in Society
As a practicing artist Sir Joshua Reynolds was most successful as a portrait painter; however, in his lectures he promoted history painting in the Grand Style—Classical, historical, allegorical, and biblical subjects—above portraiture, landscape, genre, and still life, a hierarchy that originated in Italian Renaissance art theory and that Reynolds in his role of president of the newly established Royal Academy of Arts hoped to perpetuate in England. Reynolds’s aim was to elevate the fine arts within Britain’s consumer society and to encourage a taste and market for a native school of history painting while he continued to earn his living primarily as a portraitist. These practical and theoretical sides of Reynolds’s career, his accomplishments in portraiture and advocacy of history painting, are the subject of books by Richard Wendorf and Martin Postle. The authors examine diverse aspects of Reynolds’s work and employ quite different methods, yet both address the artist’s concern with his own achievements as well as with the status of the painting profession in eighteenth-century England.
Postle’s book is the first comprehensive examination of Reynolds’s subject pictures, which until now have been insufficiently studied. The book consists of seven chapters that chart Reynolds’s career chronologically, and each examines a particular theme or problem beginning with the emergence of subject pictures in Britain during the 1760s through the reception of Reynolds’s pictures after his death in 1792. The first chapter examines Reynolds’s historical portraiture in which he employed allegorical devices to elevate the status of his sitters and of their portraits through association with history painting. Postle argues that Reynolds’s methods raised a series of ambiguities that elided the distinctions between genres and undermined the development of history painting in England. Next, he explores the “fancy pictures” of peculiarly sexualized children such as Cupid as a Link Boy (c.1773). The following chapters cover Reynolds’s more ambitious projects as a history painter, including Ugolino and his Children in the Dungeon (1773), the allegory of Theory (1779) for the Royal Academy’s new location at Somerset House, and classical subjects such as the acclaimed Death of Dido (R.A. 1781) and The Infant Hercules Strangling the Serpents (1788). Postle also looks at Reynolds’s participation in the commercial printmaking ventures of Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery and Macklin’s Poet’s Gallery, which provided subject picture commissions for many artists. The most interesting and provocative chapter is the final one in which Postle discusses the posthumous criticism of Reynolds’s subject pictures through 1830 and examines how his reputation as the founder of the British School was manipulated by political motives and religious affiliations as much as by artistic considerations.
Based on extensive research, including reviews of Reynolds’s work in the contemporary press, Postle’s book contains much important information, though at times the author’s persistent search for pictorial sources and borrowings from Old Master paintings tends to obscure rather than illuminate our understanding of the pictures and their reception within a wider cultural context. For example, it is interesting to know that Reynolds’s Venus (1785) may have emulated Titian or imitated Falconet, but why, despite his promotion of classical subjects and academic training did Reynolds wait so long to paint his first female nude? Despite this, the book deserves praise as an essential resource and significant addition to Reynolds scholarship that should stimulate further study of history painting in Britain. [End Page 142]
Richard Wendorf writes about Reynolds primarily in his role as portrait painter, but he uses this artist as the basis for a more extensive investigation into the social history of eighteenth-century portrait painting. The author’s concern is not with individual works of art, although he does offer interpretations of several portraits...