We had quite a finale to the Things seminars for the year with a discussion of ‘Painted Things’ focusing on the portraits of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Dr Matthew Hunter from McGill and Professor Mark Hallet, Director of the Paul Mellon Centre in London gave us two stimulating papers encouraging a vibrant discussion. You can read the storify of the tweets from the session here, and listen to the podcast here.
Matthew opened the session with his paper asking ‘Did Joshua Reynolds Paint his Pictures?’ He gave us a challenging discussion of Reynolds’ experimental pigment use, the resultant changing nature of Reynolds’ images, and their replication in multiple authorised copies, from mezzotints, to enamel, to needlework. He asked, using the ideas of Michael Fried, whether these multiple versions mean that we can really consider the ‘originals’ ‘pictures’ and Reynolds as having ‘painted’ them. Matthew showed us that the thorny art-historical relationship between paint, image, and picture was as alive in the eighteenth century as modern criticism. He opened with a commentary on Reynolds from the 1773 London Morning Chronicle, which challenged Reynolds on his paint use, as well as a 1914 article from the New York Times on the discovery that Reynolds was involved in replacing Poussins with replicas in the 18th century. He discussed Reynolds’ active encouragement of technically innovative copies of his portraits, which fixed the paintings more permanently, and therefore to some extent can be seen as ‘picturing’ them. Challenging Walter Benjamin, Matthew suggested we can see a story of ‘Reynolds’ painting in the age of chemo-mechanical reproduction.’ In the context of Reynolds’ 6th Discourse on Art, Matthew further argued that we should see Reynolds’ mind as like an alchemical laboratory, Reynolds himself expecting his paintings to develop and mature over time, as the pigments aged. By ending with a comparison to photography and photographic theory, Matthew concluded that Reynolds’ paintings challenge the idea of single artistic creation, needing us to re-consider both what a ‘picture’ and ‘painting’ is, and the art historical boundary that has been established between painting and photography.
Mark Hallett followed with his paper ‘Point Counter Point: Joshua Reynolds, portraiture and late eighteenth-century exhibition culture.’ He took us out of Reynolds’ studio into the Great Room at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, to argue that Reynolds’ portraits should not be examined individually but considered in their relationships on the exhibition walls. He responded immediately to Matthew’s ideas on the paintings developing over time, suggesting that different pictures therefore exist of the same painting, between studio, gallery and owner’s house. Mark opened with the 1780 portrait of The Ladies Waldegrave, discussing how Reynolds’ use of pale whites and greys against deep reds served to make the painting stand out in the Great Room. He compared this to the portrait of Lord Richard Cavendish also displayed in 1784, arguing that Reynolds increasingly used this space to display his different portraits of women. Moving on to actresses, Mark compared Reynolds’ portrait of Mrs Abington as Roxalana to Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse, arguing that these created contrasting views of tragic and comic acting, not only in the actresses and their histories, but in Reynolds’ choice of style and their different settings in the same Great Room exhibition. With Mrs Abington peeping out between masculine constructions of combat and martial valour, and Mrs Siddons towering sublimely over portraits of more traditionally feminine women and children, the two created a striking view of Reynolds’ skill. Mark ended with a discussion of the multiple portraits shown by Reynolds in the 1787 Great Room – showing us each painting’s place in contemporary engravings – where he set multiple representations of aristocratic motherhood against a controversial portrait of George IV.
In the lively and wide-ranging discussion, we considered visitors’ reactions to the displayed paintings and the afterlife of the paintings and their copies. Questions asked Matthew and Mark to expand on their thought-provoking papers, considering whether we can draw a broader model for eighteenth-century views on art, and what Matthew’s ideas mean for history of photography, and the history of art based on Michael Baxandall. What a brilliant end to a brilliant year!