Sir Joshua Reynolds (British, 17231792)
Oil on canvas; 100 1/4 x 142 in. (254.6 x 360.7 cm)
Gift of Junius S. Morgan, 1887 (87.16)
Sir Joshua Reynolds was England's most important Georgian artist. His style was formed while he was apprenticed to the portraitist Thomas Hudson (17011779), and during a stay of several years' duration in Italy, where he studied antique sculpture and pictures by the old masters. Returning to London in 1753, he became the city's busiest fashionable painter. In 1768, he was appointed first president of the Royal Academy; in 1784, principal painter to George III. Reynolds overcame an inadequate grasp of anatomy and perspective with impetuous handling, sonorous color, and a profound understanding of the rhetorical possibilities of pose and gesture.
The conversation piece came into vogue in Britain in the second quarter of the eighteenth century. A conversation, as it was then called, was a portrait of relatives or friends, at home and at leisure, engaged, as here, in some convivial activity. The genre evolved from seventeenth-century Dutch and contemporary French genre paintings. Small "conversations," featuring figures twelve to fifteen inches tall, were widely available for modest prices. The more popular artists moved to larger towns and eventually to London, where they painted portraits of various formats to the scale of life. Leaving royal group portraits aside, Thomas Fane, the younger son of the eighth earl of Westmoreland, is the principal subject of what seems to be the largest of conversation pieces, a vehicle for the display of the young Reynolds's exceptional talent.