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Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Acquisition of Genius

Essay written by Sam Smiles to coincide with Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Acquisition of Genius at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery

Sir Joshua Reynolds’ activities as a portrait painter, as an art theorist and as the first President of the Royal Academy helped establish the fine arts in England on a secure basis and his achievement has remained central to any understanding of the development of British art. The purpose of the exhibition at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery is to present an overview of Reynolds’ career and especially to highlight two areas that have not been afforded close examination to date, his work for patrons in Devon and Cornwall and his collection of old master prints and drawings. Research into both of these aspects makes a valuable contribution to our knowledge of Reynolds’ activities and they are of intrinsic interest for that reason. But they also bear on Reynolds’ ideas about the importance of proper artistic training, of eye, hand and mind, and of professional diligence as the foundations for an English school of painting.

To a modern ear the acquisition of genius - the subtitle of the exhibition - sounds paradoxical, for genius speaks to us of innate ability, beyond instruction or improvement. Indeed, Reynolds’ detractors found his insistence on this point hard to stomach. William Blake’s caustic comments, written in the margins of his copy of Reynolds’ Discourses, epitomise that discomfort: ‘The Man who says that Genius is not Born, but Taught – Is a Knave.’ But Reynolds insisted that genius on its own was insufficient to make an artist; the art he advocated combined natural talent with training and constant observation. As he noted in a memorandum about the place of genius in the arts, ‘I agree therefore with all those who say that labor is in vain without this Genius this feeling or this good sense but I differ in supposing this is not to be acquired.’ It is not surprising, therefore, that Reynolds headed one of his working drafts ‘Genius taught’, on which he focused his sixth Discourse, delivered at the Royal Academy in 1774. What particularly exercised him was the popular idea that the artist of genius needed no rules, whereas for Reynolds genius was better understood instead as a creative power that was systematically deployed by great artists and was thus intellectually comprehensible: ‘even works of Genius ... as they must have their cause, must likewise have their rules.’ If works of genius could be subjected to rational analysis it followed that genius was not at odds with training but could be supported by it. This would ensure that artists were neither seduced nor overawed by the workings of genius. As Reynolds declared:

The purport of this discourse, and, indeed, of most of my other discourses, is, to caution you against that false opinion, but too prevalent among artists, of the imaginary power of native genius, and its sufficiency in great works. That opinion, according to the temper of mind it meets with, almost always produces, either a vain confidence, or a sluggish despair, both equally fatal to all proficiency.

Throughout the fifteen Discourses he delivered at the Royal Academy Reynolds frequently returned to the idea that an artist’s creative potential cannot be fulfilled unless it is channelled effectively; genius can flourish properly only when the artist’s craft is thoroughly understood.

However, Reynolds’ understanding of the artist’s craft embraced much more than technical excellence: the professional artist should also be able to draw on the resources of a well-stocked mind. For Reynolds, it was ‘indisputably evident that a great part of every man’s life must be employed in collecting materials for the exercise of genius.’ If the artist was not to exhaust his imaginative capabilities the mind’s intellectual and creative resources needed to be enhanced, primarily by studying the old masters and observing natural appearances. And he emphatically rebutted those who claimed that such knowledge would inhibit their creativity: ‘... there is no danger of the mind’s being over-burthened with knowledge, or the genius extinguished by any addition of images; on the contrary, these acquisitions may as well, perhaps better, be compared ... to the supply of living embers which will contribute to strengthen the spark, that without the association of more fuel would have died away.’ Genius must therefore be directed and cultivated if it is to animate the arts and it is the responsible artist’s duty to work towards that goal. This is why Reynolds claimed that genius on its own was not enough, leading only to ‘vain confidence’ if it was not combined with proper study and hard work. As he noted in 1769, ‘excellence is never granted to man, but as the reward of labour’ and his own career can be examined with this in mind.

In reviewing the portraits he painted in the West Country in the later 1740s, after he had finished his studies with his master, Thomas Hudson, in London, we are witnessing Reynolds working assiduously, becoming a professional artist. The paintings he produced for patrons living in and around Plymouth demonstrate how successfully the young Reynolds challenged the complacency of mundane face-painting, using a variety of means to avoid unimaginative stock poses and beginning to develop a highly distinctive style of portraiture. Working in Devon, however, was extremely limiting for an ambitious artist; there were very few good collections of pictures in the county and too small an intellectual community to foster a serious and sustained engagement with the visual arts. Indeed, Reynolds would later describe Plymouth as having ‘the fewest admirers of pictures and prints... of any town of its size that he knew of.’ The prospect of foreign travel was therefore very welcome and his two years in Italy (1750-52) provided Reynolds with a priceless opportunity to deepen his artistic knowledge; in Rome, Naples, Florence, Bologna and Venice he studied important examples of Italian painting. The extensive collection of old master paintings, prints and drawings which he acquired throughout his career, was, similarly, not merely the indulgence of a connoisseur but also a valuable resource that could impart useful lessons. As he exhorted the students of the Royal Academy:
Study therefore the works of the great masters, for ever. Study as nearly as you can, in the order, in the manner, and on the principles, on which they studied. Study nature attentively, but always with those masters in your company; consider them as models which you are to imitate, and at the same time as rivals with whom you are to contend.

Reynolds returned to England from Italy in 1752. The following year he established himself in London and over the next decade, in his thirties, he built the reputation that sustained his career. He maintained his connections with important West Country patrons and developed an extensive portrait practice among the social elite of England, he was friends with many of the most creative personalities of the day and he was a figure to be reckoned with among his fellow artists. This professional prominence saw him elected President of the newly established Royal Academy in 1768. On the evidence of his pronouncements in the Discourses, Reynolds would have understood his pre-eminence in the London art world as the reward not merely of his creative talent, but of his diligence and application in his profession. He was knighted in 1769, the University of Oxford conferred on him the title of Doctor of Civil Law in 1773, the same year he was made Mayor of Plympton, and in 1784 he was appointed Painter in Ordinary to King George III.

As President of the Royal Academy, Reynolds was in a good position to argue for the intellectual and cultural worth of the fine arts. The Discourses, although ostensibly addressed to the students of the Royal Academy, were designed to make a contribution to contemporary discussions on aesthetics, the history of art and the cultivation of taste. Reynolds’ characterisation of the artist as a professional, combining intellectual understanding with facility of hand, his insistence that genius can be taught, may be understood as necessary strategies within a wider campaign to raise the standing of the artist in Georgian England. Throughout his Discourses he is at pains to present painting as a liberal profession, combining intellectual powers with creative imagination, and thus quite distinct from what its detractors would call merely a mechanical trade, reliant solely on technical skills and the servile imitation of reality. In essence, what Reynolds proposes is that artists have the ability to conceive a subject imaginatively and can convey its essential quality or significance by employing a generalised treatment of visual appearance, beyond any concern with minute details. This ability is ‘an instance of that superiority with which mind predominates over matter, by contracting into one whole what nature has made multifarious.’

With respect to portraiture, although Reynolds acknowledged that ‘likeness...is what is most generally required by such as sit to the painter,’ ideally the artist would avoid exact resemblance and aim instead to ‘ennoble the character of a countenance...at the expense of the likeness.’ The portrait painter, Reynolds believed, should aim at a general effect rather than ‘the exact expression of the peculiarities, or minute discrimination of the parts.’ The sitter’s features should naturally be ‘planted in their proper places, which so much contributes to giving the effect and true impression of the whole,’ but any peculiarities of countenance ‘may be reduced to classes and general descriptions; and there are therefore large ideas to be found even in this contracted subject.’ His study of old master portraits had shown him that their merits as paintings and as studies of general character were independent of their fidelity as likenesses. Portraiture was therefore implicitly included in his declaration that only works ‘built upon general nature, live for ever.’

As part of this assertion of the dignity of his profession, and notwithstanding the fact that he enjoyed a good living from his portrait practice, Reynolds drew a sharp distinction between cultural value and economic value. His pupil James Northcote transcribed one of Reynolds’ notes recording his rebuttal of a remark made by the economic theorist Josiah Tucker, the Dean of Gloucester, that ‘a pin-maker was a more useful member of society than Raffaelle.’ Reynolds vigorously opposed such thinking, pointing out that the arts and sciences contributed to civilization by providing ‘the rational enjoyment of life... opening scenes of intellectual pleasure and instruction by means of the senses.’ The arts and sciences would thus improve society, which Reynolds understood as a community of rational beings bound together in a common purpose. By comparison, Tucker’s high estimation of commerce was, for Reynolds, the product of ‘a very narrow mind’ which elevated mercantile self-interest over the commonweal. As he noted in his ninth Discourse, delivered in 1780:

'The estimation in which we stand in respect to our neighbours, will be in proportion to the degree in which we excel or are inferior to them in the acquisition of intellectual excellence, of which Trade and its consequential riches must be acknowledged to give the means; but a people whose whole attention is absorbed in those means, and who forget the end, can aspire but little above the rank of a barbarous nation'.

The intellectual excellence that Reynolds recommends is something to which artists can contribute and one of the principal aims of the Discourses is to show how this can be achieved.

Assessing the value of artistic creativity in contemporary society is, of course, not just an eighteenth-century concern. The terms of the debate change, and the structure and funding of today’s art world are very different from anything Reynolds can have imagined, but the fundamental issue remains the same: what is the purpose of creative and intellectual activity and how can its contribution to society be fostered? The temptation is always to subordinate creative work to the pressing needs of trade and industry. Reynolds, however, was adamant that economic priorities alone cannot sustain a healthy society. Genius, whether innate or acquired, makes a contribution beyond the reach of a commercial reckoning.



‘Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Acquisition of Genius’ will be between 21 November 2009 to 20 February 2010

Reynolds was born in Plympton in 1723 and went on to become one of Britain's finest and most fashionable portrait painters. He was knighted in 1769 and was also a founder and the first ever President of the Royal Academy of Art.

Though he found success in London Reynolds never forgot his roots and many of his closest friends and clients were from the South West. This previously under-researched aspect of Reynolds’ career will be highlighted in the exhibition with a section specifically dedicated to his local links. Amongst other works of art, this section will include loan items from the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro; Pencarrow House, Wadebridge and National Trust property Antony House, Torpoint. Works belonging to the Museum which are usually on show at Port Eliot, St Germans will also feature.

images top to bottom
1. Sir John Molesworth, oil on canvas, 1762 – 63
2. William Molesworth, oil on canvas,1756                                                                                                                                       3. Anne Molesworth (née Smyth) by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas, 1755.
All three images courtesy of The Trustees of the Molesworth – St. Aubyn Heritage Property Trust.