The Brown Boy by Sir Joshua Reynolds

The Brown Boy by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1764)

My Daily Art Display today moves away from symbolism and interpretation and allegorical tales.  Today we have a simple portrait by an artist who was one of the greatest influences on English painting.  His name was Sir Joshua Reynolds.   His portraits were of the lofty and rhetorical manner of history painting a genre which showed figures involved in significantly important or morally enlightening scenes and treated them in a suitably impressive and gallant way.  It was often termed painting in the Grand Manner.   It was an idealized aesthetic style derived from classical art, and the modern “classic art” of the High Renaissance and it depended on the idealization of the imperfect.

Reynolds was born in Plympton St Maurice, Devon in 1723.  At the age of seventeen, he was apprenticed for three years to the prolific English portrait artist, Thomas Hudson.  In 1749 he travelled to Italy where he spent more than two years, mainly in Rome, during which time he studied the Old Masters and it was here that he developed a liking for the “Grand Style” of painting…  He was back in London in 1753 and made friends with the artistic and literary elite of the time including writers Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke and the actor David Garrick.  He became an early member of the Royal Society of Arts and later with Thomas Gainsborough, the great portrait and landscape painter, founded the Royal Academy.  Reynolds and Gainsborough were the dominant portraitists of the late 18th century.  Sadly in 1789 when Reynolds was 62 he lost the sight in his left eye.  Three years later he died and was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral, London.

The cherubic face of Master Thomas

The other person featured in My Daily Art Display today is the person depicted in the painting, 12-year old Master Thomas Lister, who would become the 1st Baron Ribblesdale of Gisburn Park in 1797 when he was forty-five years old.  Reynolds has given the young lad’s face a flattering, slightly romantic look.  The young boy looks thoughtful as he stands leaning slightly on his stick.  There are child-like qualities in the way in which he has been portrayed.  He is at an “in-between” age, neither man nor boy he is embarking on a new stage in his life.   His costume is of plush velvet and reminds one of the ways Anthony Van Dyke, a century earlier, painted portraits of aristocrats which gave them a look of both grandeur and poise.  In this picture the colour of Thomas Lister’s clothes blends with the colour Reynolds used for the background which has an Arcadian feel to it is reminiscent of classical landscapes of the Italianate painters. 

Apollo Sauroctonos


Art historians believe that Reynolds had the boy pose in a similar way to the Apollo Sauroctonos, a sculpture dating back c. 350BC, which Reynolds would have seen when he was in Rome.

In the mid 18th century, history painting was the most favoured of art genres and in this painting Reynolds has managed to intertwine historical references into this painting. 

Reynolds was well loved and admired.  William Makepeace Thackeray said of him:

“…of all the polite men of that age, Joshua Reynolds was the finest gentleman…”

I will close today with part of a poem by Thomas Bernard, who was to become Bishop of Killaloe, and who wrote in his verses on Reynolds:

“ Dear knight of Plympton, teach me how
To suffer, with unruffled brow
And smile serene, like thine,
The jest uncouth or truth severe;
To such I’ll turn my deafest ear
And calmly drink my wine.

Thou say’st not only skill is gained
But genius too may be attained
By studious imitation;
Thy temper mild, thy genius fine
I’ll copy till I make them mine
By constant application.”