Historical Portraits Picture Archive

The Infant Jupiter 1770s late

Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723-92)

The Infant Jupiter, Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
42 x 32 4/5 inches 108 x 83.2 cm
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We are grateful to David Mannings for confirming the attribution to Sir Joshua Reynolds

This painting is an important discovery that helps us to further understand Reynolds’ subject pictures. The original version was purchased by the 4th Duke of Rutland, but was destroyed by the fire at Belvoir Castle in 1816. It depicts the young god seated on a rocky promontory guarded by his eagle and clutching the lightning bolts that are Jupiter’s attributes. The goat that suckled him in infancy is shown in attendance.

This second version reveals fascinating details about Reynolds’s studio practice. The removal of later overpaint has exposed a black and white sketch version of the composition, laid in by a studio assistant, which the master has begun to overlay with his own work. The face has been completed by Reynolds, as has the hand clutching the thunderbolts and the swathe of drapery over the infant’s lap. The rest of the painting is awaiting his attention, or a further campaign of studio assistance.

It is likely that the assistant in this case was James Northcote RA, Reynolds’s principal assistant and amanuensis, who describes preparing a monochrome copy of The Infant Jupiter; ‘…I well remember having prepared a copy for Sir Joshua in a ground-work in black and white’ [Mannings Reynolds Yale 2000 p.542]. It was, too, Northcote who described Reynolds’ technique of painting more than one version of his subject pictures, and his observations below give us perhaps the most fitting description of The Infant Jupiter :

“…he [Reynolds] always advised, as a good mode of study, that a painter should have two pictures in hand of precisely the same subject and design, and should work on them alternately; by which means, if chance produced a lucky hit, as it often does, then, instead of working on the same piece, and perhaps by that means destroy the beauty which chance had given, he should go to the other an improve up on that. Then return again to the first picture, which he might work upon without any fear of obliterating the excellence which chance had given it, having transposed it to the other. Thus his desire of excellence enabled him to combat with every sort of difficulty or labour.”

[Martin Postle, Sir Joshua Reynolds, The Subject Pictures Cambridge 1995 p85]

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