Joshua Reynolds famously said that ‘a room hung with pictures is a room hung with thoughts’. Though this exhibition only takes up two rooms within The Wallace Collection, it indeed inspires ideas. The most striking thing visitors will learn about Reynolds is how experimental he was with his techniques, his paints, and his visions. Every painting is created so differently that it becomes impossible to put him in a proverbial paintbox. The first painting hung in the gallery is aptly titled ‘Experiments in Colour and Media’, and it sets a precedent for the rest of the experience. This canvas is indicative of Reynolds’s mind; messy, full of colours, notes, and techniques, all coming together to create something beautiful. Though this piece is not at all typical of the elegant portraits he is famed for, it gives us insight into a nonetheless crucial part of the artist’s work. Here we see how though he created polished and refined pieces, the process of creating each work was anything but.
Each painting was taken to the National Gallery, one of The Wallace Collection’s crucial partners in this endeavor, to be X-rayed, scratching the surface of Reynolds’s different techniques, as well as those of his conservationists. His innovation extends beyond his painting, as can be seen with a self-portrait created just before his trip to Italy, an experience that many agree was a turning point for his work. For this piece, Reynolds flipped a traditional portrait on its side, as opposed to simply using a landscape canvas, highlighting his ingenuity and subtle yet always creative methods. The artist brought this same lateral thinking to his post as President of the Royal Academy, where he taught many people not how to paint, but how to approach thinking about painting.
Reynolds was one of the most popular painters in his day, and his work was commissioned by some of the poshest people in English society. His job was to immortalise them in their fashionable glory, and he applied his creative mind to this as well. Two of the most elegant portraits in this exhibit, those of Lady Elizabeth Seymour-Conway and her sister Frances, Duchess of Lincoln (whose family founded The Wallace Collection), are shown through X-rays to have had their hairstyles changed over time; at the time of their painting, smoother coiffures were in style, but later frizzier updos were popular. X-rays show that Reynolds repainted the hair of his subjects before the portraits left his studio to allow for his sitters to stay in vogue- for a little longer, at least. In fact, he often asked his subjects to wear nondescript clothing so that their portraits would be more timeless, showing how seriously he took the long-lasting effects of his work.
Moving away from his portraits are the fantasy and ‘fancy’ paintings, which delve deeper in the interior imagination of human beings, rather than focusing on portraying them through the exterior image, as depicted by his portraits. Here The famous The Strawberry Girl and The Age of Innocence, whose situations in life are a contrast as much as their features are similar. Reynolds is the master of conveying how similar yet disparate people can simultaneously be – both individually, and compared to others.The Strawberry Girl has the same angelic heart-shaped face and soft eyes as the other small girl, but her life is sadly not as innocent. The X-ray of another painting shows that Reynolds had actually painted another Strawberry Girl underneath the final image, highlighting his habit of having two paintings of similar figures going at the same time, so as to compare and contrast techniques and effects before settling on a final work of art.
His stunning depictions of society-ladies Kitty Fisher and Nelly O’Brien achieve similar results, as he exhibits their multifaceted natures through different portraits. Reynolds shows how dynamic an image can be – a person’s face, posture, dress, and demeanor tells so much about who they are, and how they want to be seen by the world; these literal and mindful reflections are not at all static.
Reynolds’s experimental process allowed for continuous growth and change within his paintings, showcasing the evolution of the image, both throughout its creation, and afterwards. Yet none of his works have truly come to completion – at least not in the sense that they are final; their emotional endurance, and the ever-changing information we learn about them from increasingly innovative technology allows conservationists, art historians, curators, and now the public, to view Joshua Reynolds, and his experiments in paint and in thought, in new lights.
Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint is on at The Wallace Collection until June 7, 2015.