Genius and Ambition I: Sir Joshua Reynolds

This is the first of a series of discussion pieces of the Bendigo Art Gallery’s outstanding exhibition “Genius and Ambition”. They are designed to make some sense of the nature of the exhibition to the relatively naive viewer and perhaps provide readers with some insights into the nature and relative standing of such collection.

The first image that greets the viewer is Sir Joshua Reynolds’ allegorical painting Theory. An allegory is the description of a subject in the guise of another subject and might include figures emblematic of different emotional states of mind – for example envy or love – or personifying other abstract concepts, such as sight, glory, beauty, Revolution, or France. (National Gallery of Britain).

Theory Joshua Reynolds
Theory Joshua Reynolds

The programme notes to this painting state: “Reynolds (who was the first president of the Royal Academy) was affirming the intellectual basis of his own art and the aspirations of the Royal Academy.”

So what do we make of this painting? A rather muscular lady called Theory, perched on something between a blue cushion and a cloud, gazing off into the distance with a scroll held in her hand.

Well, a good place to start is looking at what other painters have done with the idea of allegory, starting with Bernardo Strozzi’s Allegory of the Arts

Allegory-of-Arts Strozzi

Here Strozzi places three women around a bust of Homer, the embodiment of poetry. Two of them are examining a pendant while the other gazes off into the near distance. There is a dramatic tension between the three and richness of colour that is completely lacking in the Reynolds painting.

Dominico Corvi’s Allegory of Painting is in many ways closer in structure and theme to the Reynolds work but it has an ironic overlay of the self-preoccupation of the young woman in all her rococo splendour and she views herself in a mirror held by Cupid.


Then there is Klimpt’s ravishing Allegory of Sculpture

Allegory-of-Sculpture klimpt

Here Klimpt captures the central beauty of the nude contrasting the subtle flesh colours with the austere background of the classical sculptures. It’s a dramatic and striking piece.

And then to a real knockout, Rubens’ Allegory of War

rubens-allegory of war

Rubens captures the tumult, suffering and slaughter of war in the dramatic headlong rush of the characters frame. It’s probably not completely fair to compare Reynolds to Rubens but the Reynolds painting is the opening statement by the first president of the Royal Academy, one of the most important figures in British and the lead piece in the Royal Academy exhibition so it is useful to see how it stacks up against other allegorical artists.

The other way to see this painting in context is to consider it against other work that Reynolds has done. His portrait of Mrs Charles James Fox is a masterpiece of tonal subtlety.


The subject is framed in dark shadows and the viewer’s eye is drawn to the face of the subject by the use of increasingly intense flesh coloured tones of the background and the blouse of the subject. There is an expression of appraisal as the subject looks out that the viewer. This is clearly a masterwork. Why didn’t he try harder with Theory?

Similarly with the portrait of Lavinia Spencer. The artist uses the tones and colours of the clothing and the headdress to frame the subject and her cheerful face with its scarcely suppressed smile. Both of these paintings give a wonderful insight into the personality of the subject.

Lavinia Spencer by Sir Joshua Reynolds

The Infant Jupiter is a real hoot of a painting. It depicts the God as a rather grumpy and capricious infant, guarded by an eagle and grasping a handful of thunderbolts. He is clearly not happy about something and there is going to be all hell to pay.

the Infant Jupiter Joshua Reynolds
the Infant Jupiter Joshua Reynolds

So at the beginning we have a pretty ordinary painting by the heavyweight of the Royal Academy. It is probably not the most auspicious of beginnings for the exhibition but certainly a symbolic one. It probably sets in context the contribution that the Royal Academy has made to British art.

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