National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 17, 1971

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A Reynolds Revived

by Mervyn Ruggles

Résumé en français

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The first major European painting acquired by the National Gallery of Canada was Reynolds' Portrait of Charles Churchill (Acc. no. 29, purchased in 1910), (1) which was painted in London in 1755 when the artist was thirty-five. (2) According to an entry in Reynolds' sitter-book of that year, the portrait was commenced at no on on Tuesday, 15 April, at his studio in Great Newport Street. (3) The date of its completion is not recorded, but Waterhouse estimates that Reynolds required, on the average, nine sittings for a portrait 30 by 25 inches. Obviously the three-quarter-length Churchill took somewhat longer. During that year Reynolds had 120 sitters, and by 1758 had acquired 150 clients, whom he accommodated by painting every day, including Sunday. That was his peak year.

Reynolds' success as a fashionable portrait-painter had been assured by the instant acclaim received by his dramatic full-length portrait (94 by 58 inches) of Augustus Keppel, later Viscount Keppel, First Lord of the Admiralty, completed the preceding year, 1754. (4) It is interesting to note that during this early period Reynolds set his fees at the same level as those of Thomas Hudson, his former master: a head cost 12 guineas, a half-length 24, a full-length 48. (5) Twenty-seven years later, Reynolds was charging 50 guineas for a head, 100 for a half-length (55 by 44 inches), and 200 for a full length. In comparison, Gainsborough's fees at this time (1781) were a head for 30 guineas, a half-length 60, and a full-length 100, while Romney was charging 20, 40 and 80 guineas respectively. We can assume, therefore, that in 1755 Charles Churchill paid about 40 guineas for his almost full-length painting of 50 by 40 inches. The exact fee for a three-quarter length is not recorded in available literature.

Having returned in October 1752 from his three-year stay in Italy, Reynolds was settled in London by 1753. (6) We are reasonably sure that up to this period he had been a "direct" painter, using the straightforward technique (pigment in linseed oil) of his teacher, Hudson. On his return from Italy he embarked on the "experimental work" (7) with paint in various types of mixtures with other oils that was to continue throughout his career. Unfortunately, areas of the paint structure in the National Gallery's Churchill demonstrate evidence of some of his experimental treatment. At that time Reynolds was already favouring blues, greys and blue-blacks. H. A. Buttery refers to Reynolds' use of the fugitive colour carmine over a white-lead primary brushwork in the flesh tones. (8) The carmines commonly used in those days were not permanent (9) and Reynolds' use of them for flesh tones often produced results that were far from satisfactory. (10) Only much later did Reynolds make use of the more stable vermilion red for flesh colour. He employed bitumen, a brown mixture based on tar, as an additive for his backgrounds and shadow areas, often mixing waxes with pigments, together with quick driers. Numerous examples of Reynolds' experimental efforts exist. Doubtless, the famous Sarah Siddons as "The Tragic Muse", (11) commenced in 1783 and completed a year later, after much working over, now shows evidence of his use of bitumen and other additives in his linseed oil medium. Of this work, now in the Huntington Collection, San Marino, California, Robert R. Wark states:

It was always a somber picture, but if the colors may not have altered radically, there is at least one feature of Reynolds' technical procedure in the painting that has had a serious effect on its appearance. Reynolds was constantly experimenting with pigments and media. He discovered that a beautiful warm, dark, velvety tone could be produced by the use of bitumen. Bitumen or asphaltum is a tar like substance. When used as under-painting in a picture (as Reynolds has used it in the dark background areas of "The Tragic Muse", it never really hardens but continues to flow slightly, opening up broad, deep cracks ill the layers of paint. This collection is very marked in the background areas of "The Tragic Muse" but fortunately is practically absent from the figure itself.

I inspected the Siddons portrait in June 1969 at San Marino and found Wark's comments to be entirely valid.

Another example of the serious after-effects of his experiments can be seen in The Infant Academy which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782 and is now in the Iveagh Collection at Kenwood, England. The traction cracks in the background drapery of the James Boswell portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, shown at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1787, have the same origin. In contrast, the Lady Caroline Price, also completed in 1787 and now in the Bath House Collection, and the Lady Skip with and the Lady Taylor, both at the Frick Collection, have from my observation survived in excellent condition.

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