Joshua Reynolds

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Nature is, and must be the fountain which alone is inexhaustible; and from which all excellencies must originally flow.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, RA, FRS, FRSA (July 16 1723February 23 1792) was an English artist, a founder member of the Literary Club, and the first President of the Royal Academy.


Discourses on Art[edit]

Quotations are cited from The Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 4th edition (1809)

  • Invention, strictly speaking, is little more than a new combination of those images which have been previously gathered and deposited in the memory: nothing can come of nothing.
  • You must have no dependence on your own genius. If you have great talents, industry will improve them; if you have but moderate abilities, industry will supply their deficiency.
    • Discourse no. 2; vol. 1, pp. 43-44.
  • A mere copier of nature can never produce any thing great, can never raise and enlarge the conceptions, or warm the heart of the spectator.
  • Could we teach taste or genius by rules, they would be no longer taste and genius.
    • Discourse no. 3; vol. 1, p. 57.
  • If deceiving the eye were the only business of the art, there is no doubt, indeed, but the minute painter would be more apt to succeed; but it is not the eye, it is the mind, which the painter of genius desires to address; nor will he waste a moment upon those smaller objects, which only serve to catch the sense, to divide the attention, and to counteract his great design of speaking to the heart.
    • Discourse no. 3; vol. 1, pp. 70-71.
  • A painter must compensate the natural deficiencies of his art. He has but one sentence to utter, but one moment to exhibit. He cannot, like the poet or historian, expatiate.
  • It must be remembered that painting is not the mere gratification of sight.
  • As the natural dignity of the subject(of a portrait)is less, the more the ornamental helps are necessary to its embellishments.
  • Words should be employed as the means, not as the end: language is the instrument, conviction is the work.
    • Discourse no. 4; vol. 1, p. 94.
  • A painter must not only be of necessity an imitator of the works of nature...but he must be as necessarily an imitator of the works of other painters: this appears more humiliating, but is equally true; and no man can be an artist, whatever he may suppose, upon any other terms.
  • Genius is supposed to be a power of producing excellencies, which are out of the reach of the rules of art; a power which no precepts can teach, and which no industry can acquire.
    • Discourse no. 6
  • The mind is but a barren soil; a soil which is soon exhausted, and will produce no crop, or only one, unless it be continually fertilized and enriched with foreign matter.
    • Discourse no. 6; vol. 1, pp. 157-8.
  • The greatest natural genius cannot subsist on its own stock: he who resolves never to ransack any mind but his own, will be soon reduced, from mere barrenness, to the poorest of all imitations; he will be obliged to imitate himself, and to repeat what he has before often repeated. When we know the subject designed by such men, it will never be difficult to guess what kind of work is to be produced.
    • Discourse no. 6; vol. 1, p. 158.
  • Nature is, and must be the fountain which alone is inexhaustible; and from which all excellencies must originally flow.
    • Discourse no. 6; vol. 1, p. 162.
  • What has pleased, and continues to please, is likely to please again: hence are derived the rules of art, and on this immoveable foundation they must ever stand.
  • Poetry operates by raising our curiosity, engaging the mind by degrees to take an interest in the event, keeping that event suspended, and surprising at last with an unexpected catastrophe. The painter's art is more confined, and has nothing that corresponds with, or perhaps is equivalent to, this power and advantage of leading the mind on, till attention is totally engaged. What is done by Painting, must be done at one blow; curiosity has received at once all the satisfaction it can ever have.
  • You are never to lose sight of nature; the instant you do, you are all abroad, at the mercy of every gust of fashion, without knowing or seeing the point to which you ought to steer.
  • The art of seeing Nature, or in other words, the art of using Models, is in reality the great object, the point to which all our studies are directed.
    • Discourse no. 12; vol. 2, p. 104.
  • No Art can be grafted with success on another art. For though they all profess the same origin, and to proceed from the same stock, yet each has its own peculiar modes both of imitating nature, and of deviating from it, each for the accomplishment of its own particular purpose. These deviations, more especially, will not bear transplantation to another soil.
  • The true test of all the arts, is not solely whether the production is a true copy of nature, but whether it answers the end of art, which is to produce a pleasing effect upon the mind.
    • Discourse no. 13; vol. 2, p. 136.


  • What is a well-chosen collection of pictures, but walls hung round with thoughts?
  • There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.
    • Quoted in Time magazine December 8, 1930

Quotes about Joshua Reynolds[edit]

  • Sir Joshua Reynolds was, on very many accounts, one of the most memorable men of his time. He was the first Englishman who added the praise of the elegant arts to the other glories of his country. In taste, in grace, in facility, in happy invention, and in the richness and harmony of colouring, he was equal to the great masters of the renowned ages. In portrait he went beyond them; for he communicated to that description of the art, in which English artists are the most engaged, a variety, a fancy, and a dignity derived from the higher branches, which even those who professed them in a superior manner did not always preserve when they delineated individual nature. His portraits remind the spectator of the invention of history, and the amenity of landscape. In painting portraits he appeared not to be raised upon that platform, but to descend to it from a higher sphere. His paintings illustrate his lessons, and his lessons seem to be derived from his paintings.
    He possessed the theory as perfectly as the practice of his art. To be such a painter, he was a profound and penetrating philosopher.
    • Edmund Burke, quoted in Charles Robert Leslie and Tom Taylor, Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds: With Notices of Some of His Contemporaries, Vol. II (1865), pp. 629-630
  • Primus inter pares in this society of humanists stood Reynolds, who as President preferred the gown of the scholar to the toga of the committee-man. His deepest convictions were involved in the theory and history of art, and he quickly revealed himself as the Professor par excellence if not by title. The Discourses delivered ex cathedra to the General Assembly from 2 January 1769 to his last appearance at the distribution of prizes on 10 December 1790 embodied a doctrine and outlined a programme which rank as the classic statement of academic ideals in Europe after three centuries of debate. Their conciliar formulation and openness to new ideas mark a watershed in the history of academic art theory.

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