Sir Joshua Reynolds (Self-portrait)

A curtain fell across him...

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Portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds
Sir Joshua Reynolds (Self-portrait)
Studio of Reynolds
c.1800-1820

Q: When is a self-portrait not a self-portrait?

A: When it's a copy by one of your pupils.

When this artist, Sir Joshua Reynolds, was at work painting he used an unstable pigment. The result was that even in his own lifetime his painted portraits took on a deathly pallor that greatly amused the idle rich who had the time to dwell on such matters. Fortunately an unidentified pupil of his copied the great Royal Academician's self-portrait with the result that the BOA Museum now owns perhaps the finest version of this picture in the country, or at least the version closest to the intended original appearance.

Apart from the interest of the wig spectacles shown in the painting it is great to have this portrait because Reynolds left such a vivid description of his own failing eyesight.

You can click on the image of this painting to enlarge it.

In April 1770 he suffered a stroke, but recovered. Then in 1782 he suffered another stroke and a ‘violent inflammation in [his] eyes’ from which he was still not fully better by January 1783. Subsequently, he probably wore spectacles when painting to correct his short-sightedness. Reynolds noted in his Pocket Book on 13 July 1789 that his left eye had begun ‘to be obscured’ and within ten weeks he had completely lost the sight in that eye.

An analysis of Reynolds’ notes, by our late College member J. R. Levene, showed that Reynolds was also losing the sight in his right eye from at least the mid 1780s. The sudden blindness in the left eye may have been the result of a detached retina with consequent haemorrhaging. Reynolds described the detachment as like a curtain falling across his face, elaborating thus: ‘A copious light dazzled out my shut eyes, and, as my sight diminished, every day colours gradually more obscure flashed out with vehemence; but now that the lucid is wholly extinct, a direct blackness, or else spotted, and as it were spotted with ash colour, is used to pour itself in, nearer to whitish than black; and the eye, rolling itself a little, admits a little smallness of light, as through a chink’. Given that Reynolds carried on painting throughout the 1780s it is conceivable that he would have benefited for a while from a bifocal correction. He certainly knew Benjamin Franklin in London in the 1770s, when it is possible that the concept of the split bifocal was already under development. (Both men were friends of Edmund Burke). It is also significant that his successor as President of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West, was an early wearer of bifocal lenses. The spectacles in the BOA painting are not bifocals, however, and the claim that Reynolds ‘invented’ bifocals is decidedly weak. In January 1790 he was described as wearing spectacles with one glass opaque. Soon he was forced to give up painting entirely, 1790 being the last year that he exhibited at the Royal Academy. At least two pairs of Reynolds’s silver spectacles survive. The lenses have a strength of -4.75 dioptres. A similar pair, once on loan to the R.A. and now in the possession of his family, have a strength of -4.00 dioptres, which shows that Reynolds was myopic.

To find out more about Reynold's eye condition and place it in context see our web article about the 'Tyranny of Treatment' in the age of Dr Johnson.

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