Historical Portraits Picture Archive

An Opening in the Woods 1770s

Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723-92)

An Opening in the Woods, Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
24 x 29½ inches, 61 x 74.9 cm
Christie’s 18th May 1821, Lot 48, sale of Lady Thomond, Reynolds’ niece; Bought by Sir George Philips for £68.5s, bequeathed to his daughter; Julia, Countess of Camperdown; By descent to the Earl of Camperdown, until sold; Christie’s 19th February 1919, Lot 149; With Leggatt Brothers, London 1919; Mrs Whitelaw Reid, of Ophir Hall, USA; Sold at the Anderson Galleries USA, 14th May 1935, Lot 1185, by the American Art Association; Private Collection, New York.
W. Cotton ‘Sir Joshua Reynolds and his Works’ (London 1856), p65; A Graves & W V Cronin, ‘A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ (London 1899-1901), Vol. IV, 1234; W. B. Pope, ‘The Diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon’ (Cambridge, USA, 1960-3), Vol.V, p.577; David Mannings ‘Sir Joshua Reynolds – A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings’ (London 2000) p.578, no 2188.
British Institute, London, 1832; British Institute, London, 1864; Royal Academy, London, 1882.
To view paintings by Joshua Reynolds for sale, please go to www.philipmould.com.

“In regular landscape paintings”, wrote Joshua Reynolds’ pupil and biographer, James Northcote in 1818, “[Reynolds’] works are very scarce.” [James Northcote, ‘The Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds’, Vol. II, p184.] This picture is one of only a handful of landscape pictures (Martin Postle catalogues just seven) that can be confidently attributed to Reynolds. It was not only exhibited regularly in the nineteenth century, but can be traced back to the ownership of Reynolds’ niece, Lady Thomond.

The few other landscapes that exist, such as ‘View from Richmond Hill’ [Tate Gallery, London], show that Reynolds felt supremely comfortable with the genre. In some respects this is surprising, for, unlike his contemporary Thomas Gainsborough, we have no substantial evidence of any preparatory sketches or landscape drawings. And while many of Reynolds’ portraits contain landscapes, they are easily resolved, inherent as they are in the background of another work. Here, however, the foreground is as expertly introduced as a work by any leading landscape artist, with the strongly lit tree on the right framing the composition in tandem with the contrastingly dark, broken tree on the left. And, just as the sitters in Reynolds’ Grand Manner portraits appear to be projected from the canvas towards the viewer, so here a perfect sense of depth leads our eye through the woods, towards the water in the middle distance, and upwards into the sky and distant hills.

It is possible that this is the picture recorded by Reynolds himself in his ledger for 1770, as “Paise senza Rosso con Giallo nero Turchino e Biacca. Cera”, meaning that he painted it without the use of red pigments, focusing instead on yellow, black, blue and white. The artist and diarist, Benjamin Robert Haydon, linked Reynolds’ note specifically to this picture in the early nineteenth century, and while this picture is not wholly without red or pink colouring, it is certainly only visible subtle pink glazes in the sky.

Haydon also suggested that this scene was taken from Richmond Hill, where Reynolds lived. But this seems unlikely – unless the hill in the background here is a particularly snowy Hampstead Heath – and the composition is most likely a capriccio. It may be possible to observe some similarity with Rubens’ ‘Landscape by Moonlight’ [Courtauld Collection], which Reynolds himself owned. In both examples a pool of water reflects a strong light in the centre-left of the canvas, and provides a further source of light through roughly half a dozen trees to the right. However, in terms of dating the present picture, we cannot be certain exactly when Reynolds first acquired Rubens’ work, except that he owned it by December 1778.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.