Hired to Depress: A Digital Scholarly Edition of William Blake's Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds' Discourses

Italy and France, 1749-1752

Reynolds travelled with Keppel from Plymouth to Minorca, with brief stops at Lisbon, Cadiz, and Gibraltar, and a detour to Morocco in order to secure the release of the imprisoned British consul. Reynolds had a pleasant journey, taking wine with Keppel in his cabin, reading his books, and observing a bull-fight in Spain. They arrived at Port Mahón on 18 August 1749. Here Reynolds suffered a riding accident in which he sustained injuries to his face, telling Miss Weston that his lips were ‘spo[iled now for] kissing’ (Letters, 7). Reynolds was compelled to remain on Minorca for longer than he had planned, although it gave him the opportunity to paint portraits of the British garrison stationed there, and earned him upwards of £100. Many years later an old soldier recalled to Fanny Burney: ‘He drew my picture there, and then he knew how to take a moderate price; but now I vow, ma'am, 'tis scandalous—scandalous indeed! To pay a fellow here seventy guineas for scratching out a head!’ (The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney, ed. L. Troide, 1994, 3.414).

In January 1750 Reynolds left Port Mahón for Italy, and by Easter was in Rome. There he set about making copies of old-master paintings. They included a small copy of Raphael's School of Athens and a full-scale copy of Guido Reni's St Michael, which Reynolds recorded having made in Santa Maria della Concezione between 30 May and 10 June, and which his niece later presented to George IV. Reynolds spent many hours in the Vatican scrutinizing the work of Michelangelo and Raphael's frescoes in the Stanze. As he later recalled:

I found myself in the midst of works executed upon principles with which I was unacquainted: I felt my ignorance and stood abashed. Notwithstanding my disappointment, I proceeded to copy some of those excellent works. I viewed them again and again; I even affected to admire them, more than I really did. (Works, 1.xvi)

He also made a thorough inspection of the city's myriad churches and religious foundations, and the spacious private palaces owned by patrician families such as the Colonna, Borghese, and Barberini. His impressions, in the form of both sketches and written description, were recorded in notebooks (MSS, department of prints and drawings, BM; Sir John Soane's Museum, London; Harvard U., Fogg Art Museum; Metropolitan Museum, New York; Beinecke Library, Yale University; priv. coll.). Collectively the notebooks reveal that while Reynolds respected the high Renaissance he was instinctively drawn to the art of the later sixteenth century and seventeenth century, including a number of lesser-known artists such as Federico Barocci, Andrea Sacchi, and Sacchi's pupil Carlo Maratta.

Reynolds was a diligent student. He also had a keen sense of humour, as the series of caricatures he produced during his time in Rome reveal. Of these, the most ambitious was an inventive parody of Raphael's School of Athens (NG Ire.), depicting a rabble of assorted ‘milordi’, tutors, painters, and picture dealers, many of whom were close personal friends. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Reynolds did not undergo any sort of formal training in Italy. However, he formed friendships with a number of continental artists, including the young French decorative painter Gabriel-François Doyen, with whom he swore a vow of friendship before the statue of Marcus Aurelius, and Claude-Joseph Vernet, then among the most popular painters of Roman landscapes and seascapes. He also met an Italian youth, Giuseppe Marchi, who returned with him to England, becoming his pupil and lifelong factotum.

Reynolds left Rome on 5 April 1752. Following a brief visit to Naples he set out for Florence on 3 May, accompanied by the artists John Astley and Samuel Hone. They travelled via Assisi, Perugia, and Arezzo. In Florence the sculptor Joseph Wilton, whom he had known in Rome and whose portrait he now painted (NPG), acted as Reynolds's guide. Reynolds made a careful study of works in the Pitti Palace, including Raphael's Madonna della sedia, Titian's Mary Magdalen (‘an immense deal of hair, but painted to the utmost perfection’; Reynolds, ‘Notebooks’, BM, LB 12, fol. 29v), and two large paintings of Henry IV by Rubens (now in the Uffizi gallery, Florence). His predilection for mannerism surfaced once more in his enthusiastic comments on the art of Barocci and Matteo Rosselli and on the sculpture of Giambologna, whom he then rated as highly as Michelangelo.

On 4 July 1752 Reynolds left Florence for Bologna, where he expressed a particular admiration for Lodovico Carracci, an artist whom he was to regard with exaggerated respect throughout the rest of his life. After ten days in Bologna, Reynolds travelled to Venice via Modena, Parma, Mantua, and Ferrara, reaching Venice on 24 July 1752. There he spent time with the Italian painter Francesco Zuccarelli, analysing the technical methods of the great Venetian colourists Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese. He also found time to make sketches of paintings by Giambattista Tiepolo. Improbably, his greatest praise was reserved for a large crucifixion in the church of San Lio, by the minor baroque artist Pietro Muttoni della Vecchia (1605–1678), a work which he declared to be ‘equal to any masters whatsoever’ (Reynolds, ‘Notebooks’, BM, LB 13, fols. 78r and 48v).

Reynolds left Venice on 16 August 1752, and travelled to Padua, Milan, and Turin. Late in August, accompanied by Marchi, he crossed the Alps, where he had a chance encounter with his old master, Thomas Hudson, and the French sculptor François Roubiliac, who were on their way to Rome. Temporarily short of money, Reynolds journeyed alone to Paris by coach, Marchi following behind on foot. Reynolds arrived in Paris on 15 September, Marchi three days later (sketchbook, Metropolitan Museum, New York, fol. 178). In Paris Reynolds spent time with the architect William Chambers, whose fiancée he then painted (Kenwood House, London). He also looked at works by the old masters, including Van Dyck, Jordaens, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Titian. However, he concluded that the French ‘cannot boast above one painter of a truly just and correct taste’, Nicholas Poussin (Leslie and Taylor, 1.86–7). After a month Reynolds headed for Calais, where he was reunited with Hudson and Roubiliac. They crossed the channel to England together, Reynolds arriving in London with Marchi on 16 October. Reynolds did not return to Italy. However, he was to make two further visits to Paris in 1768 (9 September – 3 October) and 1771 (15 August to early September).

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