Joshua Reynolds and the material aspects of painting

How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrid, and dreadful.  But this picture will remain always young.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

I guess most of us attending Matthew Hunter’s talk at the Curiously Drawn conference last month thought of The Picture of Dorian Gray at some point or another. Fading pigments? Deteriorating canvases? Volatile works of art? Rather reassuringly, Hunter’s explicit mention of Wilde’s book towards the end of the paper confirmed that we were on the right track. Entitled Joshua Reynolds, the Royal Society and the temporally-evolving chemical object in the British Enlightenment, the talk was indeed devoted to issues like preservation and decay in art. To be more precise, it offered a thorough study of the materiality of 18th-century painting through quite an innovative analysis of the figure of Joshua Reynolds and his circle.

Among many themes, the paper explored the «colour culture» associated with 18th-century artistic practice, set against a backdrop of chemically improved materials and progressively industrialized processes. In particular, it focused on Reynolds’ interests in chemistry as part of his efforts to experiment with colour making and the production of pigments. This portrayal of Reynolds as a devoted experimenter, an Enlightened heir of the (al)chemical tradition developed by the Royal Society –from Robert Hooke and the manufacture of pigments to the reports on temporally evolving chemical processes discussed by other fellows– contrasted with the generally assumed characterization of the painter as a successful portrait artist and first president of the Royal Academy of Arts.

Methodologically speaking, this revision of Reynolds as a chemical innovator was, as the Q&A discussion confirmed, the most important contribution of the paper: it demonstrated the advantages of juxtaposing various seemingly disconnected areas of inquiry and exploring the overlapping elements.

I would also like to highlight another important point in connection to innovation: its instability. As Matthew Hunter recalled throughout the paper, Reynolds’ techniques not only were expensive –a point that was raised in the discussion– but highly risky too. In many cases they led to disastrous results in terms of pigment preservation and the overall condition of his works of art.

This Dorian Gray-esque effect related to innovation and experimentation should remind us of the importance of considering the material aspects of visual culture –what are images made from? to what extent is their visual content and potential mediated by their materiality? Furthermore, with is emphasis on uncertainty and volatility, it might help us to contextualize the work of early modern image makers as part of a wider set of practices marked by continuous trialling and exploration –including, of course, those commonly associated with the Royal Society.
José Ramón Marcaida

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About Jose Ramon Marcaida

I’m a historian of science interested in the history of early modern Iberian science and its connection with Renaissance and Baroque visual culture. More generally, I’m interested in the relation between texts, images and things across the Humanities.
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