Neoclassicism in Britain and Sir Joshua Reynolds

Neoclassicism in Britain and Sir Joshua Reynolds

Ancient times have always served as breeding ground and inspiration to artists of various periods. The Enlightenment renewed the interest to historical painting in a sense that it had to be as realistic and as true to the past as it could be. It signaled the arrival of Neoclassicism when artists drew from classical examples of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. It can be compared to the way modern people view historical drama on TV and expect it to correspond to the time periods it portrays (Janson & Davies, 2007, p. 793). However, large historic paintings were not in such a large demand to provide all existing artists and often portraiture was a source of income for painters. Inasmuch as Neoclassicism heavily drew from the tradition of Classicism and ancient masters, such masters as Joshua Reynolds revived the Classical style and did a lot for the British theory of art, even though his artworks have excessively eclectic qualities and serve as a textbook for ancient and Renaissance methods and symbols rather than original art.

Historical Painting

The Enlightenment drew people’s attention to the importance of history so the genre of historical painting received a boost. Historical paintings attempted to truthfully portray historical periods and made an emphasis on copying attire, buildings, sculpture, and other elements characteristic for the period depicted. Neoclassicist artists depicted the actual scenes of historic events rather than just hinting at a specific time period with specific clothes.

Benjamin West was one of the artists who successfully did historical painting. In order to reach the ultimate truthfulness, West depicted historical background such as ancient ruins or buildings and people dressed in historical costumes involved in a historical event. However, West also attempted to bring the principles of historic painting to a contemporary subject to a big shock of his contemporaries. In The Death of General Wolfe (1770), West depicts events of 1759 by carefully arranging figures in a classical manner of “Lamentation scene” (Janson & Davies, 2007, p. 795). While wearing contemporary clothes the figures encircle the martyr-like figure of General Wolfe.

The flourishing of portraiture

Although painters could live on painting portraits of well-off patrons and customers, it was not very respected occupation. Unlike historical painters, portrait artists were not very valued. However, they were commissioned more and could earn a living off portraiture. In the Neoclassical period, artists turned to classical examples and in this way they tried to elevate the simple nature of portraiture. Drawing from Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, as well as from the renowned Renaissance and Baroque styles, portrait painters managed to excite more interest in their sitters.

Sir Joshua Reynolds began as a history painter and quickly made his name as a “face painter” (Janson & Davies, 2007, p. 795). Reynolds received his artistic education in Rome and, being greatly inspired by antiquity and the Classical tradition, wanted to revive British art (Janson & Davies, 2007, p. 795). Using symbols and elements of Classicism Reynolds elevated the genre of portraiture to a higher level. In the 1740s, Reynolds establishes his “practice” that relied on a vast circle of clientele, apprentices, rigorous studies, and hard work. The artist undoubtedly had talent but also he was very industrious and sociable, which helped him gain necessary social connections and supporters and patrons.

By the 1750s, Reynolds had a steady stream of sitters and could have up to six sitters a day (Wendorf, 2005, p. 95). Such a pace and hard work allowed him to earn enough money and move into another social stratum. Reynolds bought a mansion and accepted his sitters their both working and socializing there. Having an elegant house and carriage, as well as other elements of high financial standing elevated Reynolds and assisted him in establishing his name as a talented and successful artist. The artist charge around 70 guineas for a portrait and it was a rather high price for that time.

Contemporaries note that Reynolds’ artworks were remarkable in their likeness to sitters’ appearance. Starting at pallid and light colors Reynolds worked up till the resemblance was striking. He also liked to improve his mastery by numerous repetitions. For example, there are several repetitions of The Strawberry Girl done by Reynolds in order to make it better and better each time. The artist believed that he cannot endlessly improve a painting because it would eventually ruin it. However, he can start a new one of the same topic and perfect the subject (Wendorf, 2005, p. 118).

Eclectism of Reynolds

However, Reynolds managed to elevate the art of portraiture to new heights by introducing classical elements such as references and direct borrowings from the art of Ancient Greece and Rome, as well as Renaissance and Baroque (Janson & Davies, 2007, p. 795). This method allowed him to add heft and seriousness even to the most simple portraiture made of a sitter and a drapery. Classical attire, symbolical objects, poses, and backgrounds created a fascinated effect for his contemporaries reflecting the majestic light of the Classical tradition.

On the example of Reynolds’s Lady Sarah Bunbury Sacrificing to the Graces (1765), the patchwork of Reynolds’s style can be observed (fig. 1). The artist portrays Lady Sarah not in modern-style clothes but rather wearing an attire of ancient times. All the other elements of the painting are also not contemporary. On the right, Lady Sarah’s friend is kneeling with an Ancient Greek narrow-neck amphora. On the left, there is a statue of the three Greek graces on a tall column modeled on the Ancient Greek sculpture. According to the classical symbols, the three graces imply different stages of friendship. The figures are depicted nude symbolizing the open nature of friendship. The wreath symbolizes the eternal character of friendship, while a rose chain means the prettiness of the sitter (Janson & Davies, 2007, p. 795). Thus, the three graces, Lady Sarah’s clothes, her companion’s pose and other symbols are based on ancients images (Janson & Davies, 2007, p. 796).

Other influences

Although Reynolds undoubtedly had a talent and was very hard working, his contemporaries remarked the patchwork of his style, “a stylistic chameleon” (Janson & Davies, 2007, p. 796). When painting Lady Sarah Bunbury Sacrificing to the Graces Reynolds drew from Guido Reni (Janson & Davies, 2007, p. 795). In Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy, Reynolds used the poses from The Choice of Hercules and the format of Lot and his Daughters by Guido Reni (Wendorf, 2005, p. 149). In the 1780 self-portrait, Reynolds emulates Rembrandt’s Aristotle, while his 1775 Self-portrait as a Dead Man with a hand next to his ear closely resembles Samuel Johnson’s self-portrait where he stares a book brought close to his face (Wendorf, 2005, p. 43). Whereas Reynolds adopted themes and symbols from the ancient masters, his use of large-scale canvases reveals the influence of the Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck who was first to paint large pictures with grandeur (Janson & Davies, 2007, p. 796).

Neoclassical Architecture

The preceding Baroque architecture had strong overtones of Roman Catholicism, which was unbearable for the British. Therefore, Neoclassicism was an answer and a new direction. Rather romanticizing the ancients, British scholars held that “the proportions and geometry of ancient architecture reflected the nobility and beauty of the Greek and Roman soul” (Janson & Davies, 2007, p. 796). It was a very appealing thought for the enlightened individuals. At that time the party of the Whigs won the elections and they liked to associate themselves with ancient statesmen. Roman senators and officials had country villas so the Whig members wanted them as well. These new buildings were designed in the neoclassical style with simple and slick colonnaded facades.

One of the villas in the Neoclassical style is Chiswick House built by William Kent and Lord Burlington (fig. 2). It is a cubic building with rectangular windows and no other decoration rather than columns. The building is topped with the rotunda. The semicircular window and the domed shape of the rotunda resemble Ancient Roman bath houses (Janson & Davies, 2007, p. 796).

The Undercurrent of Romantism

However, the cleanliness and purity of Neoclassicism was soon challenged with the undercurrents of Romantism. The traditions of Classicism were appreciated for their beauty and simplicity while the British soul demanded flourish and emotions. Romantism enters the notions of the picturesque and sublime into art. For example, the portraiture experienced this change as the integration of a sitter into the background. In Portrait of Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Thomas Gainsborough paints his model softer and less bold than Reynolds and Mrs. Sheridan does not stand against the landscape. Rather the lines of her posture, clothes, and ribbons repeat the lines of the clouds and tree branches. She looks serene and innocent (Janson & Davies, 2007, p. 802).


Neoclassicism was a response to the Enlightenment when science and logic stepped forward and took the place occupied by religion and mysticism. Therefore, Neoclassicism reflected the values of logic, simplicity, and purity. In painting, historical painting received much attention. West successfully demonstrated how the principles of historical painting can be applied to contemporary scenes. However, for artists it was easier to earn doing portraits. Reynolds managed to uplift the art of portrait painting to new heights by re-introducing classical elements into it and establishing the Neoclassical Style. Even though his style looked in an eclectic manner being made out of many elements the grand masters’ art, it established the basis for the Neoclassical Style later developed by other artists such as Jacques-Louis David. Neoclassicism came to architecture as well ousting the Baroque style closely associated with Roman Catholicism. Simultaneously the tendencies to Romanticism began originating in Britain.

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