English painter (b. 1723, Plympton Earl, d. 1792, London)
Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons
Oil on canvas, 141,5 x 113 cm
National Gallery, London
In 1753 Reynolds settled in London, where he was to live for the rest of his life. His success was assured from the first, and by 1755 he was employing studio assistants to help him execute the numerous portrait commissions he received. The early London portraits have a vigour and naturalness about them that is perhaps best exemplified in a likeness of Honourable Augustus Keppel (1753-54; National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London). The pose is not original, being a reversal of the Apollo Belvedere, an ancient Roman copy of a mid-4th-century-BC Hellenistic statue Reynolds had seen in the Vatican. But the fact that the subject (who was a British naval officer) is shown striding along the seashore introduced a new kind of vigour into the tradition of English portraiture. In these first years in London, Reynolds’ knowledge of Venetian painting is very apparent in such works as the portraits of Lord Cathcart (1753/54) and Lord Ludlow (1755). Of his domestic portraits, those of Nelly O'Brien (1760-62) and of Georgiana, Countess Spencer, and Her Daughter (1761) are especially notable for their tender charm and careful observation.
After 1760 Reynolds’ style became increasingly classical and self-conscious. As he fell under the influence of the classical Baroque painters of the Bolognese school of the 17th century and the archaeological interest in Greco-Roman antiquity that was sweeping Europe at the time, the pose and clothes of his sitters took on a more rigidly antique pattern, in consequence losing much of the sympathy and understanding of his earlier works.
There were no public exhibitions of contemporary artists in London before 1760, when Reynolds helped found the Society of Artists and the first of many successful exhibitions was held. The patronage of George III was sought, and in 1768 the Royal Academy was founded. Although Reynolds’ painting had found no favour at court, he was the obvious candidate for the presidency, and the king confirmed his election and knighted him. Reynolds guided the policy of the academy with such skill that the pattern he set has been followed with little variation ever since. The yearly Discourses that he delivered at the academy clearly mirrored many of his own thoughts and aspirations, as well as his own problems of line versus colour and public and private portraiture, and gave advice to those beginning their artistic careers.
From 1769 nearly all of Reynolds’ most important works appeared in the academy. In certain exhibitions he included historical pieces, such as Ugolino (1773), which were perhaps his least successful works. Many of his child studies are tender and even amusing, though now and again the sentiment tends to be excessive. Two of the most enchanting are Master Crewe as Henry VIII (1775-76) and Lady Caroline Scott as Winter (1778). His most ambitious portrait commission was the Family of the Duke of Marlborough (1777).
In 1781 Reynolds visited Flanders and Holland, where he studied the work of the great Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens. This seems to have affected his own style, for in the manner of Rubens’ later works the texture of his picture surface becomes far richer. This is particularly true of his portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire and Her Daughter (1786). Reynolds was never a mere society painter or flatterer. It has been suggested that his deafness gave him a clearer insight into the character of his sitters, the lack of one faculty sharpening the use of his eyes. His vast learning allowed him to vary his poses and style so often that the well-known remark of Thomas Gainsborough, Damn him, how various he is! is entirely understandable. In 1782 Reynolds had a paralytic stroke, and about the same time he was saddened by bickerings within the Royal Academy. Seven years later his eyesight began to fail, and he delivered his last Discourse at the academy in 1790. He died in 1792 and was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
In his seventh Discourse on Art delivered at the Royal Academy in 1776, Reynolds proclaimed:
He…who in his practice of portrait-painting wishes to dignify his subject, which we will suppose to be a lady, will not paint her in the modern dress, the familiarity of which alone is sufficient to destroy all dignity… [he] dresses his figure something with the general air of the antique for the sake of dignity, and preserves something of the modern for the sake of likeness.
In his fourth Discourse of 1771 he had recommended the ‘historical Painter’ never to to 'debase his conceptions with minute attention to the discriminations of Drapery…With him, the clothing is neither woolen, nor linen, nor silk, satin, or velvet: it is drapery; it is nothing more.’
Reynolds was not alone in worrying about the way portraits began to look ridiculous as fashions changed. The dress of ancient Greeks and Romans belonged to that period in European history which, educated people then thought, set civilised standards for all time; it was also believed to be closer to nature than modern dress especially the 'straight lacing of English ladies’, 'destructive…to health and long life’. But not all sitters wished to be depicted in mythical charades, and the results could sometimes be even more risible than an outmoded bodice - as when Lady Sarah Bunbury, who 'liked eating beefsteaks and playing cricket’ was painted by Reynolds sacrificing to the Three Graces.
Lady Cockburn’s portrait demonstrates the half-way mode most successfully adopted by the artist, and his pleasure in it is reflected by his signing it on the hem of her robe - a wonderfully majestic gold 'drapery’. According to the newly fashionable exaltation of maternity, Augusta Anne, Sir James Cockburn’s second wife, is posed with her three children (although separate sittings are recorded for the elder boys). James, the cherub kneeling on the left, born in 1771, became a general; George, born in 1772 and clambering around his mother’s neck, grew up to be the admiral whose ship conveyed Napoleon to exile on St Helena; the baby, William, born that June, entered the Church and became Dean of York. The commission must have reminded Reynolds of the traditional allegorical image of Charity as a woman with three children; he probably knew Van Dyck’s painting (now in the National Gallery, but then in an English private collection) or the famous engraving after it, for his composition resembles it in many details.
Where Van Dyck’s Charity gazes up to Heaven, however, Lady Cockburn turns her profile to us and looks lovingly at her eldest son. Despite George’s mischievous address to the viewer - probably to be imagined as his Papa - the composition echoes Michelangelo’s grand and severe sibyls on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The colour accent of the brilliant macaw, a favourite pet in Reynolds’s household recorded as having perched on the hand of Dr Johnson, was an afterthought, recalling Rubens’s use of a similar device. So well did Reynolds succeed in lending Lady Cockbum 'the general air of the antique’, however, that when the painting was etched for publication, and Sir James objected to his wife’s name being exposed in public, the print was entitled Cornelia and her Children after the Roman matron who boasted that her children were her only jewels.