Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Self-Portrait, c.1772/3 

Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723-92)

Self-Portrait, c.1772/3, Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
30 x 25 in (76 x 63.5 cm)
Private Collection, New York
Sam Smiles ed., exhibition catalogue ‘Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Acquisition of Genius’, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, no.33 p.98-99 (illus.); The Burlington Magazine, March 2010 no.1284, vol. clii, p.196.
‘Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Acquisition of Genius’, 21st November 2009 – 20th February 2010, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery
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Reynolds’ first self-portrait in oil [c.1746, Private Collection] shows an alert and open-eyed young man, apparently startled at the novelty of seeing his own image before him. His last, perhaps deliberately, is a mirror image of the first, the only difference being the effects of time in a sadly aged face [1788, Private Collection]. Those in between, however, allow us to chart his development as a painter, from the clear confidence and prosperity of the c.1779/80 Royal Academy picture, in which a bust of Michelangelo bows deferentially towards him, to later examples in which he is seen as variously deaf or bespectacled. Like the self-portraits of Rembrandt, they provide a detailed autobiographical progression of character, time and talent.

This example, hitherto unknown, is one of the most important Reynolds discoveries of recent years. It shows him in the scarlet and salmon-pink gown of an Oxford Doctor of Civil Law, an honorary award given him in 1772. The robe and hat seen here dominate his self-portraits of the 1770s and early 80s. These are the props he most famously wears in the Uffizi self-portrait of 1775, and again in the Royal Academy picture, not least because he was inordinately proud of his new degree (a number of close friends, such as Samuel Johnson, had been accorded the same honour). The colour of the robe allows Reynolds a sense of theatre not seen in his earlier self-portraits, and it is tempting to see in these works elements of the frustrated actor, a man who, as a professional portraitist, was always constrained to depict the good looks, flamboyance and wealth of others, but who could now indulge himself in his own grand manner.

The hat and gown led to an important stylistic transformation in Reynolds self-portraits. He had always (like Rembrandt) been fascinated by the challenge of portraying sitters in differing levels of light. Some of his most successful early works, such as the 1752-6 portrait of Catherine Moore [Kenwood] and the1762-4 portrait of Nelly O’Brien [Wallace Collection] show his supreme skill in capturing the luminous effects of shadow and half-light. In both examples, it is the sitter’s hats that create an interplay between stronger, direct sunlight and darker, reflected shadows. Reynolds could thus demonstrate his deft use of translucent glazes, creating the subtle tones and colours that were the envy of his contemporaries. With his honorary doctorate, and its broad-brimmed velvet hat, Reynolds could now experiment with the same techniques in his self-portraits.

The present work is one of the first occasions in which Reynolds explores the different compositional opportunities allowed by his new costume. As ever, the contrast between the light and dark side of his face is handled with ease. Here, the shadow falls arc-like across one half of his face, exposing his nose and right eye with an almost unflattering intensity. It differs from other self-portraits with the same composition, where Reynolds allows a greater or lesser amount of light onto the left side of his face, either by turning his head further towards the viewer, or by tilting his head backwards. In the present work, Reynolds has included an unusually bright, sky background, thus enabling him to play to greatest effect the role of the hat, and a harsher contrast of light.

It is possible that this picture is unfinished. Like most artists, Reynolds constantly experimented with his self-portraits, and saw them as an essential part of an artist’s development. Without the pressures of time or a patron’s desires, he could focus directly on himself and his talent, and, ignoring the constraints of fashion or etiquette, produce a pure distillation of skill. We are grateful to Martin Postle for suggesting that the picture may relate to the untraced self-portrait sold at Christie’s in 1833 by the widow of Reynolds’s friend, Sir George Yonge (26 February, lot 151). Dr. Postle notes that Yonge’s own portrait by Reynolds was also in a feigned oval, and was the previous lot in the same sale, which may suggest that Yonge regarded the works as pendants. In that sale Reynolds’s portrait is described as ‘A ditto [original portrait] of Sir Joshua Reynolds, by Himself, in a corresponding [carved and gilt] frame’. Other possibilities for the picture’s early history could include the ten self-portraits sold by Reynolds’s niece, Mary, Marchioness of Thomond, in her posthumous sale in 1821 at Christie’s of which several are presently untraced. Three of the Thomond sale self-portraits are described as ‘unfinished’ works (lots 11, 11a, 11b), and were sold on 26 May 1821. The first two were sold to the artist and copyist of Reynolds’ work, John Jackson, while the third was purchased by J.M.W. Turner.

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