Sir Joshua Reynolds

The Holy Family with the Infant St John


Not on display

Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723–1792
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1981 × 1492 mm
Presented by the British Institution 1830


The Holy Family, one of only a small number of religious pictures by Sir Joshua Reynolds, was painted towards the end of the artist's career. In terms of colour and composition it is heavily influenced by the art of Titian (c.1487/90-1576) and other Italian old masters, whom Reynolds had studied intently since his visit to Italy during the early 1750s. It was purchased from Reynolds in 1789 by Thomas Macklin (d. 1800) to hang in his 'Poets' Gallery', 89 Fleet Street, a commercial venture that relied upon selling engravings from original paintings. The picture appears to have been completed by October 1787 when The Morning Post noticed it hanging in Reynolds's own picture gallery at his home in Leicester Square. It is not certain exactly when Reynolds began work on the picture, although a reference in his pocket book at 10 a.m. on 18 January 1787 to an 'old man' may relate to the model for St. Joseph. The composition, particularly the figure of the infant St. John the Baptist, is partly based on Correggio's allegorical Mercury Instructing Cupid in front of Venus (National Gallery, London).

The picture was first exhibited at the Poets' Gallery in 1789. In April 1790, when it was again on view, the press reported royal interest in the picture: 'The fame of Sir Joshua's "Holy Family" in the Poets' Gallery has made its way to the palace. We hear it is in contemplation, immediately after the Birthday, to gratify the Princess Royal (who is an amateur) with a view of this boast of the English School' (The World, 19 April 1790). It was exhibited by Macklin once more in 1791, but was omitted from his catalogue in 1792 and 1793, by which time he had probably sold the painting, having commissioned an engraving to be made from it by subscription.

In 1829 Sir Peter Burrell (1754-1829), who had bought the picture from Macklin, bequeathed it to the National Gallery, where it hung alongside old-master paintings. By now the condition of The Holy Family was causing concern. In 1839 the artist John Landseer (1769-1852) observed: 'When it hung in Macklin's Gallery and subsequently in that of Sir Peter Burrell, it was then a fine picture with a solemn tone suited to the sacredness of the subject … the St Joseph was not then "a weak old man" but might vie with any St Joseph from the hand of Titian himself'. Landseer noted that the head of St. Joseph had been affected adversely not only by Reynolds's experimental technique but also by a recent cleaning by a member of The Skinners' Company, which removed some of the delicate glazes (The Probe, 1839-40, p.182). It was transferred to the Tate Gallery in 1949.

Further reading:

David Mannings and Martin Postle, Sir Joshua Reynolds. A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, New Haven and London 2000, vol.1, pp.536-7, no.2089; vol. 2, p.600, fig.1637

Martin Postle
November 2000

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Display caption

Reynolds painted very few religious paintings. This one, produced towards the end of his life, shows many aspects of the ‘grand style’ he recommended to the Academy’s students. The composition is based on the work of old master painters Reynolds had studied in Italy. The drapery is simple, with little description of details such as texture or local colour.

The colour has faded to little more than tints of light and shade. But Reynolds particularly cautioned students to avoid over-sensuous colouring. Bright colours, he warned, could not produce ‘that solidity, steadiness, and simplicity of effect, which heroick subjects require.’

Gallery label, September 2004

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