At a period of rapid economic progress and imperial expansion for Britain, Reynolds’s art embodied a new sense of ambition for British culture. He became the first President of the new Royal Academy, an art institution run by artists, founded in 1768. The pictures he exhibited at the Academy and the lectures he delivered to students inspired widespread admiration. This display focuses on the paintings he created when he was President of the Academy, including the recently acquired portrait Frederick Howard, 5th Earl of Carlisle 1769.
Reynolds argued that art should express what he considered to be timeless values, such as beauty, heroism and wit. His portraits combined a powerful sense of individual character with references to widely admired classical and Renaissance artworks, designed to flatter the sitters. But even within his own lifetime his experimental techniques led his paintings to change in their appearance. For example the red pigments he used in painting flesh faded and the unusual materials he added to his paint meant the surfaces cracked or blistered.
Meanwhile, the Royal Academy was attacked as a self-serving and aristocratic institution. The British social establishment faced new challenges, particularly after the French Revolution (1789), where the overthrow of the monarchy threatened Reynolds and many others in Britain. Reynolds’s art came to represent Britain’s own ‘ancien régime’ (old world) – depending on your point of view, either enduringly classical or elitist and out of touch.
Curated by Alice Insley and Martin Myrone