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Painting with Fire

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Photography, and the Temporally Evolving Chemical Object

Painting with Fire shows how experiments with chemicals known to change visibly over the course of time transformed British pictorial arts of the long eighteenth century—and how they can alter our conceptions of photography today. As early as the 1670s, experimental philosophers at the Royal Society of London had studied the visual effects of dynamic combustibles. By the 1770s, chemical volatility became central to the ambitious paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds, premier portraitist and first president of Britain’s Royal Academy of Arts. Valued by some critics for changing in time (and thus, for prompting intellectual reflection on the nature of time), Reynolds’s unstable chemistry also prompted new techniques of chemical replication among Matthew Boulton, James Watt, and other leading industrialists. In turn, those replicas of chemically decaying academic paintings were rediscovered in the mid-nineteenth century and claimed as origin points in the history of photography.

Tracing the long arc of chemically produced and reproduced art from the 1670s through the 1860s, the book reconsiders early photography by situating it in relationship to Reynolds’s replicated paintings and the literal engines of British industry. By following the chemicals, Painting with Fire remaps familiar stories about academic painting and pictorial experiment amid the industrialization of chemical knowledge.

Author Information

Matthew C. Hunter is associate professor in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University. He is the author of Wicked Intelligence: Visual Artand the Science of Experiment in Restoration London, also published by the University of Chicago Press.


Painting with Fire is scholarship of signal vision, intellectual force and literary panache. Transforming our understanding of even the most canonical of geniuses such as Joshua Reynolds, it urges with passion and penetration an original interpretation of painting as a chemical and ecological enterprise, where understandings of time itself unfold through the natural materials of artistic practice. It is bravura, breathtaking, and sometimes breathless work, powerfully confirming Hunter's voice as one of the most vibrant and virtuosic on early modern art and science today."
— James Delbourgo, author of Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum

Painting with Fire offers an original and transformative interpretation of the ‘British Enlightenment’ and challenges some of the fundamental assumptions underlying the historiographies of modern painting, print, and photography. The book is deeply, indeed voraciously, researched, both in the archives and in the secondary literature. It brings British art into a central position within Western modernism, overturns the standard interpretation of the work of Joshua Reynolds, and offers a radically new interpretation of the history of photography, presenting this thing we call a ‘photograph’ as one among many other kinds of experimental visual chemical operations.”
— Jennifer Roberts, Harvard University

Painting with Fire is a strikingly original account of the relationship between art and science—or, more particularly, between chemistry, painting, and photography—in the British Enlightenment. It reveals a series of uneasy entanglements that our own disciplinary restrictions have hitherto rendered invisible. Deeply rooted in primary source research, the book is peopled with an extraordinary array of figures familiar and unfamiliar. It is well illustrated with much previously unpublished visual material. Hunter’s lively prose leads the reader from Joshua Reynolds’s studios to Matthew Boulton’s Birmingham manufactory, from early modern experiments with light and pigment to photography’s Victorian heyday. By drawing attention to the chemical instability of the artwork and documenting the profound experimentation with pigment and light that fundamentally expanded the possibilities of both art and industry in this period, Hunter reveals the intellectual unsustainability of established accounts of eighteenth-century painting and of the emergence of photography. This is an incendiary contribution to art history.”
— Tim Barringer, Yale University

Audience: Professional and scholarly;