Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Self-Portrait, c.1760-5 

Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723-92)

Self-Portrait, c.1760-5, Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA
Oil and Canvas
18th Century
30 x 24 ¾ inches, 76.2 x 62.9 cm
John Allan Rolls, 1st Baron Llangattock (1837-1912), by 1906; Thence by descent to The Hon. Lady Shelley-Rolls; By whom sold, Christie's, London, 8 December 1961, lot 62, for 1,300 guineas; Bt. Mr. and Mrs. Fielding Lewis Marshall, by 1965; By whom sold, Bonham's, London, 28 March 1974, lot 110; English private collection, until sold Christie’s, London, 3rd July 2012, lot 34, for £325,250.
London, Royal Academy of Arts, Winter Exhibition, 1906, no. 86 (lent by Lord Llangattock). London, Bermondsey Settlement, Picture exhibition: Whitsuntide, 22 May-6 June 1912. London, Sotheby & Co., Exhibition of the Marshall Collection, 31 December 1973-8 January 1974, no. 10.
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All portraits present various challenges to the viewer. The most obvious is whether the artist has been able to penetrate beyond the sitter’s façade; do we see a mere replication of likeness, or can we also see a representation of character? Self-portraits are perhaps the only occasions when we can be certain that character and likeness are portrayed with equal honesty and clarity. No greater proof of this exists than in Rembrandt’s self-portraits, where an autobiographical summation of his life can be plotted from bright youth, to successful middle age, and finally through to the despair of retirement.

Self-portraits can be reasonably divided into ‘public’ or ‘private’ examples. The former are typified by works in which the artist consciously shows off his skill, as many of Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s self-portraits do, or those which publicly celebrated the achievements of an artist’s career, such as Sir Joshua Reynolds’ self-portraits in his doctoral robes. (Occasionally self-portraits were even used as adverts to attract patrons by artists such as Enoch Seeman, who, having no existing clients, was forced to use his own face as the only model available.) Such deliberately exhibitionist self-portraits are frequently more accomplished than regular portrait commissions, for, without the pressures of time or a patron’s desires, the artist could focus directly on his talent, and, ignoring the constraints of fashion or etiquette, produce a heightened demonstration of their skill; Michael Dahl and Sir Peter Lely’s self-portraits, to take two early English examples, are markedly better than their regular portrait commissions.
However, self-portraits are just as equally private affairs, and often remarkably so. The present example by Reynolds must rank amongst the latter category, not least because it is unfinished. It displays little sign of ego, self-promotion, or even flattery. It is instead poignantly direct, and even sombre in its use of a limited range of pigments. It also seems to be deliberately, imperfectly, left unfinished – though abandoned might be a better term, judging from the paint left to drip down across his shoulder. As a portrait, it relies more simply on the characterisation of the sitter than many of Reynolds’ other self-portraits, for we cannot even discern whether he is wearing formal or informal clothing, and thus our attention is easily drawn to the piercing intensity of a man examining himself through his art.

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 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, whom he came consciously to echo, they provide a detailed autobiographical progression of character, time and talent.

The re-emergence of the present self-portrait, hitherto unpublished and largely unknown, allows a fresh reinterpretation of Reynolds’ self-portraits at an important moment in his career. Painted in the early to mid-1760s, as he securely established himself as London’s pre-eminent portraitist (with a new house and studio in Leicester Square, as the friend of Samuel Johnson, and a leading exhibitor at the Society of Artists), the self-portrait is first worth noting for what it is not; its dramatically unfinished nature, its limited palette, and the lack of even the vaguest hint to Reynolds’ celebrated grand manner, suggest strongly that it falls into the more private category of self-portrait, and that it was not painted for public consumption. One must avoid the temptation to analyse the picture too subjectively, but in the half-lit face we can perhaps still see something of the shyness of Reynolds’ earlier self-portraits, while the boldness and experimentation of the overall technique points towards a deepening confidence of his own abilities and position.

Frustratingly, the lack of any early provenance for the picture means we cannot be sure of the circumstances of its commission or any of its early history. It is first certainly recorded in the collection of John Allan Rolls, 1st Baron Llangattock (1837-1912), but may have been bought by his father, the noted art collector John Etherington Welch Rolls (1807-1870). A search of the relevant Rolls family papers in Gwent archive reveals that the picture is not recorded in documents listing the pictures at the Rolls’ family home in Monmouthshire, The Hendre, so it appears that the picture hung in their London house in Bermondsey, where the picture was also exhibited. It may be worth noting that three self-portraits described as unfinished (lots 11, 11a, 11b) were sold in the collection of Reynolds’s niece, Mary, Marchioness of Thomond, in her posthumous sale of 26 May 1821 at Christie’s, which are presently not certainly identified and which may suggest that Reynolds preferred to keep his unfinished self-portraits for himself. 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. This was recorded in June 1854 in Turner’s house in Queen Anne Street after his death (no. 453), but seems not to have been amongst the sale of the remains of Turner’s collection sold by his family at Christie’s on 25th July 1874. The present self-portrait’s apparent disappearance from the Reynolds literature may be due not only to the lack of early provenance, but also to the addition in the background and areas of the body of more than one campaign of over-paint, doubtless added to give the portrait a more ‘finished’ appearance in an age when appreciation of the unfinished was less accepted than it is today. The careful removal of these areas of over-paint, along with much dirt and later, significantly discoloured varnish, has revealed a picture in an excellent state of preservation, with even the most delicate glazes and dark pigments intact.
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