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Wendorf, Richard

Sir Joshua Reynolds

The Painter in Society


    $65.00 / 48,00 € / £43.50*

    eBook (PDF)
    Reprint 2014
    Publication Date:
    February 2015
    Copyright year:
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    Aims and Scope

    That Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) became the most fashionable painter of his time was not simply due to his artistic gifts or good fortune. The art of pleasing, Richard Wendorf contends, was as much a part of Reynolds's success--in his life and in his work--as the art of painting. The author's examination of Reynolds's life and career illuminates the nature of eighteenth-century English society in relation to the enterprise of portrait-painting. Conceived as an experiment in cultural criticism, written along the fault lines that separate (but also link) art history and literary studies, Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Painter in Society explores the ways in which portrait-painting is embedded in the social fabric of a given culture as well as in the social and professional transaction between the artist and his or her subject. In addition to providing a new view of Reynolds, Wendorf's book develops a thoroughly new way of interpreting portraiture.

    Wendorf takes us into Reynolds's studio to show us the artist deploying his considerable social and theatrical skills in staging his sittings as carefully orchestrated performances. The painter's difficult relationship with his sister Frances (also an artist and writer), his complicated maneuvering with patrons, the manner in which he set himself up as an artist and businessman, his highly politicized career as the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts: as each of these aspects of Reynolds's practice comes under Wendorf's scrutiny, a new picture of the painter emerges--more sharply defined and fully fleshed than the Reynolds of past portraits, and clearly delineating his capacity for provoking ambivalence among friends and colleagues, and among viewers and readers today.


    xi, 265 pages
    8 plates
    Professional and scholarly;

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    Richard Wendorf is Director and Librarian of the Boston Athenaeum. Among his other books in eighteenth-century studies is The Elements of Life: Biography and Portrait-Painting in Stuart and Georgian England.


    [A] luminous study of Reynolds...After finishing this book, we are left not only with an understanding and appreciation of Sir Joshua Reynold's public eminence in art and society, but also of the human side to his private life.

    Sir Joshua Reynolds probably provided more fodder for the would-be biographer than any other British artist who has ever lived...Why then does he remain so elusive? Richard Wendorf, in this hugely stimulating and subtly written study of Reynolds's social life and times, gets nearer to answering that question than anyone else to date. At the heart of Wendorf's text is an investigation of how Reynolds shaped his own persona in order to accommodate others and guarantee his own continued professional advancement. The key word, and one which his contemporaries used in describing him, is 'complaisance'...Reynolds could, when he wished, charm the birds from the trees. He could also be ruthless. Somehow Wendorf resists the temptation to play judge and jury, maintaining a reflective and fair-minded impartiality...Despite the mass of information encountered by Wendorf, few stones are left unturned. In factual terms, Wendorf achieves a high degree of accuracy...Wendorf may not lead one to love Reynolds, but he demonstrates that he remains a pivotal figure for anyone who seeks to understand the interstices of eighteenth-century cultural life.

    You practice an art ruled by men. Worse still, it is one in which your brother is preeminent. This was the delicate position in which Frances Reynolds, professional portraitist and the sister of Sir Joshua, found herself--which is only one of the fascinating highlights of Richard Wendorf's portrait of the 18th century's most fashionable painter...The subtitle of Sir Joshua Reynolds suggests something of its originality, for it is not about the painter of society as much as the painter in society, revealing how the enterprise of portrait-painting illumines the nature of the period.

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