Creative inspiration today from the first President of the Royal Academy

Published 1 March 2023

The RA’s founding President Joshua Reynolds may have shaken up the art world when he delivered his ‘Discourses’ lectures, but are they still relevant now? We take a closer look at what artists and art-lovers can learn from the series today.

  • From the Spring 2023 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    In celebration of the tercentenary of Joshua Reynolds’s birth this year, the Royal Academy is presenting a programme of events and displays inspired by the artist’s Discourses on Art – the 15 lectures the Academy’s founding President delivered at the RA between 1769 and 1790. Each Discourse was published soon after its delivery, before being compiled in collected editions. These texts often seem rather indigestible today, partly because of Reynolds’s grand manner, his belief in the ‘ideal’ beyond the confrontation with the flawed and imperfect ‘real’, and his preoccupation with the status of the artist in mid-18th-century Britain that translates to a modern readership as somewhat pompous.

    Consider Reynolds’s c.1780 self-portrait from the RA Collection, with its robes and references to great artists. A man of letters, a scholar, a person of importance – no visible tools of the trade, no hint of the mechanical aspects of the painter’s craft. It is a statement of status, intellect and aspiration. Romanticism has inculcated in us the notion of artist as renegade, rebel or suffering genius, and Reynolds has often been deployed to represent the opposite, something overblown, reactionary – the embodiment of weighty academic thought.

    A new display in the the RA Collection Gallery, Image of the Artist, plays with what Reynolds advocated in terms of artistic identity, hanging this self-portrait alongside those by contemporary Royal Academicians. Some of the artists appear casual, humble, critical, self-reflective, seemingly evanescent, masked, hidden – like Clare Woods in Life with the Lions, 2020. But the departure from Reynolds’s academic ideals is not absolute: in Chantal Joffe’s painting of herself with her daughter (Looking Towards Bexhill, 2016), we can find resonances with the subject matter of the RA’s Taddei Tondo, Michelangelo’s sculpture of the Virgin and Child with the infant St John. In Hew Locke’s 2007 Chevalier, from his photographic series ‘How Do You Want Me?’, the heavily disguised artist is holding a sword, battling with what society might expect from him – as what he calls the ‘exotic’ Black artist – and playing on tradition and expectation. Reynolds’s concerns about how artists were depicted was an extension of how he believed art should be regarded in and by society. His self-portrait was painted with his audience in mind, and perhaps his motivation – public perception – has something in common with Locke’s, though their expression and presentation differ.

  • Students of art history will be aware of the Discourses, if often only as snippets pertaining to the consideration of another artist, or as a backdrop for protest or secession. While 18th-century students at the RA Schools were Reynolds’s principal audience, those in art schools today might never have occasion to read his thoughts. Even if they did, some aspects would strike them as outmoded, as they did successive generations of artists even within the RA Schools, such as William Blake and some of the Pre-Raphaelite group. In this tercentenary year, the Academy wanted to look again and consider the context and the content of the Discourses afresh. What can we glean from Reynolds’s ideas in the 21st century? Can anything still be relevant to students, to artists and to the public, the three audiences he had in mind for the original Discourses?

    While making the case for the genre of History painting (which drew subject matter from classical history, myth and the Bible), as well as the close study of nature and the refinement of the artist’s eye, Reynolds was intent on raising the overall status of artists within Britain as the first President of the RA. It was in this spirit that he began his first Discourse, delivered in January 1769 after the King had signed the RA’s Instrument of Foundation the previous month. Reynolds’s observation in this lecture, that the existence of the RA should be interesting not only to artists but to the whole nation, is a subject for consideration. He remarked that the existence of such a body had been previously recommended “upon conditions merely mercantile” but warned that anything founded on such a principle would never be able to answer to what was truly needed. To make a case for something within a “commercial nation”, an art academy that spoke to other artistic and human considerations was his challenge.

    How aptly this translates into our own context in 21st-century Britain, when the arts are so often judged by what they provide as a material outcome, and where the study of any liberal arts or humanities subject needs to be justified by employment rates and income achievements for its graduates. Too often we, as cultural leaders, including myself as Director of Collections and Learning at the RA, fall into this rhetoric, fighting for limited funding, desperate to demonstrate the contribution of the creative industries to national budgets. And while we move to prove how art can have practical outcomes in addressing societal wellbeing, ‘levelling up’ or even offering a warm space in a winter of rising fuel prices and food poverty, we shy away from what Reynolds tried to achieve in defining why the art itself mattered, why the aspiration for something beautiful and ideal and shared was a virtuous and virtue-creating process.

    Museum professionals can delight in the fact that art can do all of these things. We must be proud of our ability to sustain audiences and balance finances, but we must also value why art matters in a less tangible way. And at the Royal Academy in particular, we must remember to articulate (perhaps less loftily than Reynolds) what less immediately quantifiable outcomes an institution, led by artists, devoted to the practice and promotion of art and art-making, might achieve. Pleasure, human connection, the lifting of our eyes to see the world represented and raised beyond our own experience – Reynolds was seeking to explore these vital philosophical considerations. As he attempted to define what students might learn that would sustain them in their careers as artists, he believed these edifying aspects would transmit themselves through their work and bring benefit to the nation.

  • Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Virgin and Child with the Infant St. John (The Taddei Tondo)

    Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Virgin and Child with the Infant St. John (The Taddei Tondo), c.1504-05.

    Bequeathed by Sir George Beaumont, 1830.

    Marble relief. Diameter 106.80 cm. Photo: © Royal Academy of Arts, London.

  • Another theme running through the Discourses, reinforced time and again, was the importance of hard work. From the outset Reynolds noted to students the importance of strong foundations, learning the rules and not dispensing with them too soon. “Let us not destroy the scaffold until we have raised the building,” he observed in the first of his speeches in 1769, concerned that the easy facility of some painters could instil bad habits in their students. That “scrupulous labour” should be needed before any “dazzling excellences” were attained might be a useful consideration for all those starting out, no matter their realm. The idea of continual application, and consideration of others’ experience and production, might seem an arduous path to success. But as Reynolds pointed out, if you already possess great talents then “industry will improve them” and if you have more moderate abilities then industry will “supply their deficiency”. The value of hard graft is not always popular in an age of overnight success and viral fame, but perhaps it is something full of integrity that endures when the Warholian 15 minutes are done.

    Reynolds was swift to point out that of course the hand, “made expert by practice”, must have its complement in the mind filled with ideas. Across the series of lectures he also referred to the importance of how to select, refine and improve on observation, learning by example and through nature, but also through aspiration to something beyond the particular or specific, and outside the “fluctuation of fashion”. He sought a higher purpose for art, revealing something universal, a vision existing in artists that they are always “labouring to impart”. If the artist can move beyond “mere mechanick” and “mere sensuality” and communicate this vision, refined and distilled from nature and through the prism of others’ work, then it will translate to those who see it, in the service of public taste and virtue.

    The means of achieving this vision may have altered in the art schools of today. How could such careful thinking around light and shadow, colour and composition, attention to the ancients and the great Renaissance masters, be relevant when, for decades now, artists have breached boundaries of academic teaching, broken brushwork, exploded and fragmented careful compositions, flung, dripped, spilled and rolled in paint, immersed themselves in vast and abstract fields or rejected paint completely in favour of other media? But Reynolds brought it back to a core that remains relevant across all education. The great business of study, he pronounced in his 11th Discourse, “is to form a mind, adapted and adequate to all times”. He continued in the following lecture to expound upon the impossibility of one method suited to all. The rules, yes. The formation period, yes. But then “like travellers, we must take what we can get, and when we can get it”, trusting that the groundwork is in place, the great works by others in minds and hearts, the inspiration of which he beautifully described as the artists’ ability to “derive lights, and catch hints” from the practice of their predecessors.

  • The RA had been founded and running for 20 years when Reynolds noted in his 14th Discourse, “our reputation in the Arts is now only rising”. Perhaps there was some personal aim in this public-facing statement. Reynolds was positing the idea that it was the formation of the Academy and the RA Schools in Britain that had begun to create that groundswell moment referred to in British art histories as the ‘Golden Age of British Art’ – the country’s rising international reputation linked back to Reynolds’s leadership of the RA. Yet in this Discourse, Reynolds also references the achievements of his fellow countrymen, paying tribute to the wit and skill of William Hogarth (who died before the RA was founded), and (despite their rivalry) to the brilliance of Gainsborough’s brushwork effects as “a kind of magick”. In noting their efforts, Reynolds claimed them as also part of his narrative of rising reputation, setting out the origins of the British School, and ideas that were foundational to British art’s developing status.

    Reynolds’s references to other artists are largely to European masters, mainly Italian and Flemish – Michelangelo, his touchstone, Raphael, Titian, Correggio, Dürer, Carracci, Rembrandt and Van Dyck. Any visitor to the National Gallery can see works by all of these artists, and indeed we have a spectacular Michelangelo in the RA Collection Gallery. But no public gallery for study, contemplation or copy of paintings and sculpture existed at the time when Reynolds was delivering these Discourses. Artists had to travel abroad or be acquainted, by way of introduction, with the collectors of such works who were willing to open their houses. That an art school should come into being at the point when the Discourses were delivered and that it should hold within it copies of great works for study and learning, was a huge innovation and triumph for the RA and for Britain. And at the heart of the Discourses was the suggestion to keep looking outwards – to Europe and to shared heritage. If British art were to be great, it would need to have open-eyed and European foundations. Indeed, 18th-century editions of some of the Discourses were published in Italian, German and French.

    Reynolds noted in his last Discourse the importance of artists “putting their thoughts in order as well as they can” in order to deliver “to the publick the result of their experience”. He recognised that, although they would undoubtedly communicate best through their visual representations, their salient observations could often be worth more than pages of theory or writings by others. With this in mind, the Academy takes a fresh look at the Discourses with a view to reimagining the values vital to art in the 21st century. Starting this spring, six leading Royal Academicians will revive the idea of the Discourses on Art, in the RA lecture series ‘Artists on Art’, sharing their thoughts on art-making, art education and the role of the artist/architect today, in a world three centuries on. ‘Artists on Art’, like the Discourses, asserts the authority of the practising artist, and their continuing role in reflecting on and advocating for the importance of making art.

    Rebecca Lyons is the RA’s Director of Collections & Learning.

    Find out more about Artists on Art, our special series of six lectures by leading artists and architects, and Image of the Artist, our free display in the Collection Gallery.

    For more celebrations of Joshua Reynolds’ tercentenary, join the National Trust for an evening of art and culture at Petworth House on 8 September 2023.

    • Enjoyed this article?

      Become a Friend to receive RA Magazine

      As well as free entry to all of our exhibitions, Friends of the RA enjoy one of Britain’s most respected art magazines, delivered directly to your door.

      Why not join the club?

      Beauty and the beast RA magazine page