Joshua Reynolds was a portrait painter and aesthetician who dominated English artistic life in the middle and late 18th century. Through his art and teaching, he attempted to lead British painting away from the indigenous anecdotal pictures of the early 18th century toward the formal rhetoric of the continental Grand Style. With the founding of the Royal Academy in 1768, Reynolds was elected its first president and knighted by King George III.
Reynolds was born in Plympton, Devon, on 16 July 1723. As one of ten (maybe eleven) children, and the son of the village school-master, Reynolds was restricted to a formal education provided by his father. He exhibited a natural curiosity and, as a boy, came under the influence of Zachariah Mudge, whose Platonistic philosophy stayed with him all his life. Reynolds made extracts into his commonplace book from Theophrastus, Plutarch, Seneca, Marcus Antonius, Ovid, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, John Dryden, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Aphra Behn and passages on art theory by Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Alphonse Du Fresnoy, and Andre Felibien. The work that came to have the most influential impact on Reynolds was Jonathan Richardson's An Essay on the Theory of Painting (1715). Reynolds annotated copy was lost for nearly 200 years when it appeared in a Cambridge bookshop, inscribed with the signature 'J. Reynolds Pictor'.
Showing an early interest in art, Reynolds was apprenticed in 1740 to the fashionable portrait painter Thomas Hudson, with whom he remained until 1743. In 1749 Reynolds became friend with Augustus Keppel, a naval officer, and they both sailed on the Centurion to the Mediterranean. Whilst on board, Reynolds wrote later, "I had the use of his cabin and his study of books, as if they had been my own". From 1749 to 1752, he spent over two years in Italy, where he studied the Old Masters and acquired a taste for the "Grand Style". Unfortunately, whilst in Rome, Reynolds suffered a severe cold which left him partially deaf and, as a result, he began to carry a small ear trumpet with which he is often pictured. From 1753 until the end of his life he lived in London, his talents gaining recognition soon after his arrival in France.
Reynolds worked long hours in his studio, rarely taking a holiday. He was both gregarious and keenly intellectual, with a great number of friends from London's intelligentsia, numbered amongst whom were Dr Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, Giuseppe Baretti, Henry Thrale, David Garrick and fellow artist Angelica Kauffmann. Johnson said in 1778: "Reynolds is too much under fox and Burke at present. He is under the Fox star and the Irish constellation. He is always under some planet"