During the mid-1780s Reynolds found new friends and patrons among a younger generation of intellectuals and connoisseurs, including George Beaumont, John Julius Angerstein, Abraham Hume, Henry Englefield, Richard Payne Knight, and Uvedale Price. Of these Beaumont was Reynolds's principal disciple, taking advice and painting lessons from Reynolds, and after his death erecting a cenotaph to his memory in the grounds of his country seat at Coleorton (celebrated in Constable's Cenotaph of 1836; National Gallery, London). Reynolds's most prestigious young patron, however, was George, prince of Wales, who in May 1786 sat to Reynolds for a full-length portrait (priv. coll.), commissioned by Louis Philippe, duc d'Orléans, and shown at the Royal Academy the following year. The picture was widely criticized owing to the prominent position in the centre of the composition of a black servant adjusting the prince's ceremonial robes, an idea that apparently came from the duc d'Orléans (The World, 27 November 1787). In 1786 Reynolds also painted a full-length portrait of the duc d'Orléans for the prince of Wales. Following its exhibition at the Royal Academy, the portrait was displayed at Carlton House, until early 1792, when it was abruptly moved, following the news that Orléans had voted for the execution of Louis XVI.
By the beginning of 1785 Reynolds's name was a byword for diligence: he was now working harder than ever, exhibiting seventy-nine pictures at the Royal Academy between 1785 and 1790. As The Times noted on 10 January 1785; ‘Sir Joshua Reynolds is shaved and powdered by nine in the morning, and at his canvass; we mention this as an example to artists, and as a leading trait in the character of this great painter’. Significant portraits from this period include Mrs Musters as Hebe (1785; Kenwood House, London), Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and her Daughter (1786; priv. coll.), Lord Heathfield (1788; National Gallery, London), Lord Rodney (1789; Royal Collection), and Mrs Billington as St Cecilia (1790; Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, New Brunswick). Lord Heathfield, portraying the subject clasping the key to the rock of Gibraltar, rapidly acquired the status of an icon, Constable referring to it in the 1830s as ‘almost a history of the defence of Gibraltar’ (Leslie and Taylor, 1.517). It has recently been suggested that the picture may also have had religious overtones, through an intended comparison between Heathfield and St Peter, the great military hero transformed into ‘the rock upon which Britannia builds her military interests’ (D. Shawe-Taylor, The Georgians: Eighteenth-Century Portraiture and Society, 1990, 49).
While portraiture continued to be the mainstay of Reynolds's professional life, he now spent much of his time, particularly during the summer months, working on subject pictures. In 1782 he had exhibited a painting of a young girl leaning on a pedestal, a composition which he repeated on several occasions, and which became popularly known as the Laughing Girl (Kenwood House, London). In the mid-1780s he followed this up with a series of fancy pictures depicting little girls with pets: Robinetta with a robin, Lesbia with a sparrow, Felina with a cat, and Muscipula with a caged mouse. These paintings, light-hearted allegories on the theme of captive love, proved extremely popular and were extensively engraved and copied into the nineteenth century. In 1784 Reynolds exhibited a more overtly sensual picture on the theme of love, A Nymph and Cupid and in 1785 a Venus (priv. coll.)—‘a picture of temptation from her auburn lock to her painted toe’ (Public Advertiser, 5 April 1785). The popularity of Venus among his aristocratic patrons prompted Reynolds to repeat the composition several times, it being rumoured in 1787 that a version exported to France was destined for Louis XVI (Postle, Subject Pictures, 205).
In 1785 Reynolds received a prestigious commission for a historical painting from Catherine the Great. The subject chosen by Reynolds was The Infant Hercules Strangling the Serpents (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg). He devoted more time and attention to this picture than to any picture he had ever painted, working on it intermittently between early 1786 and the spring of 1788, when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy. After completing the painting Reynolds admitted the difficulties he had encountered, observing that there were ‘ten pictures under it, some better, some worse’ (Northcote, Life, 2.219). In addition Reynolds painted two subject pictures for Prince Potemkin, a version of A Nymph and Cupid and The Continence of Scipio, shown at the Royal Academy in 1789, shortly before its departure for Russia. By this time Reynolds was also working on three subject paintings for Boydell's Shakspeare Gallery: Puck (priv. coll.), The Death of Cardinal Beaufort, and Macbeth and the Witches (both Petworth House, Sussex).
Reynolds's relations with Boydell were invariably strained. Having agreed in December 1786 to paint a scene from Macbeth, Reynolds was vexed to see himself described in Boydell's newspaper advertisement for the scheme as ‘Portrait-Painter to his Majesty, and President of the Royal Academy’. He sent Boydell a curt note:
Sir Joshua Reynolds presents his Compts to Mr. Alderman Boydell. He finds in his Advertisement that he is styled Portrait Painter to his Majesty, it is a matter of no great consequence, but he does not know why his title is changed, he is styled in his Patent Principal painter to His Majesty. (Letters, 176)
Reynolds was also unhappy at the very idea of being employed by Boydell, believing that he was ‘degrading himself to paint for a print-seller’ (Northcote, Life, 2.226). His reluctance to become involved was eventually overcome through the intervention of the Shakespeare editor George Steevens (Reynolds's friend and fellow member of the Club), and a large cash advance of £500 from Boydell for Macbeth, the canvas and stretcher for which he also supplied gratis.
In the late 1780s Reynolds appeared to be in good health, despite a considerable deterioration in his eyesight. His physical appearance at that time can be gauged from his self-portrait with spectacles of about 1788 (Royal Collection). Edmond Malone, to whom Reynolds presented a version of the painting, stated that the self-portrait with spectacles showed the artist ‘exactly as he appeared in his latter days, in domestick life’, suggesting that it was a private rather than a public image (Works, 1.1xxvii, note). That he presented copies of the portrait to Malone, Mason, and Burke suggests that it represented the way in which Reynolds wished to be seen by his close friends. Reynolds had worn spectacles at least since 1783, when he had complained of a ‘violent inflammation’ in the eyes. He had probably worn them for a lot longer, an examination of two pairs of his spectacles revealing that he was short-sighted, and would have needed spectacles to read and to paint (Penny, 337).
During the spring and early summer of 1789 Reynolds continued to take portrait clients virtually on a daily basis, including weekends. On Monday 13 July 1789 he had scheduled a 10 a.m. appointment relating to the double portrait of Miss Cocks and her niece (Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood House, London). On the same day he wrote in his sitter book, ‘prevented by my Eye beginning to be obscured’, the first reference to the failing sight in his left eye. Reynolds attempted to carry on with scheduled portrait sittings over the next few days, although within less than a week he was compelled to stop, the portrait of the misses Cocks being completed by another hand.
Within a fortnight Reynolds's retirement was announced in the press:
Sir Joshua has mentioned to several of his friends that his practice in the future will be very select in respect to portraits, and that the remnant of his life will be applied chiefly to fancy subjects which will admit of leisure, and contribute to amuse. Sir Joshua feels his sight so infirm as to allow of his painting about thirty or forty minutes at a time only and he means in a certain degree to retire. (Morning Herald, 27 July 1789)
The blank pages of the two remaining sitter books, punctuated only by details of social calls and business matters, reveal that by the end of July 1789 Reynolds had all but retired. His friend urged him to seek medical attention. ‘We are all uneasy about him from his plethorick habit’, observed Malone to Boswell, ‘lest he should have some stroke’. ‘If anything should happen to him’, he added, ‘the chain of our society at least, would be sadly broken:—but let us hope for the best’ (Boswell's Correspondence, ed. F. Brady, 1986, 4.366).
During the early autumn of 1789 Reynolds's eyesight, and the calibre of medical treatment he was receiving, became a public talking point, as his supporters rallied to counter rumours that the president of the Royal Academy was by now a spent force. ‘It is suspected’, stated theMorning Post, on 9 September 1789,
that some artists who want to bring their own puny talents into estimation have magnified the state of Sir Joshua's disorder in order to injure his reputation, and profit, if possible, by the idea that his faculties begin to suffer too materially to admit of any future works of extraordinary vigour and beauty.
Although he continued to take a keen interest in the affairs of the Royal Academy, Reynolds was also undermined in his presidency. On 22 February 1790, following a disagreement with the academy's general assembly over its opposition to election of the Italian architect Giuseppe Bonomi to the vacant post of professor of perspective, Reynolds tendered his resignation as president, and his membership of the academy. On 13 March he was reinstated, although he never regained the respect he had formerly commanded.
Reynolds's painting activities were by now restricted to retouching and refurbishing works in his collection and those portraits which were already well under way. All the paintings he showed at the 1790 Royal Academy exhibition had been started by the summer of 1789. They included a full-length portrait of Sir John Fleming Leicester in the uniform of the Cheshire provisional cavalry (University of Manchester, Tabley House, Cheshire), repainted by James Northcote, and Francis Rawdon Hastings, second earl of Moira and first marquess of Hastings (Royal Collection). Lord Rawdon may be regarded as Reynolds's final full-length male portrait, since he was working with the sitter right up until the day when he recorded the onset of blindness in his left eye. His final female full-length portrait, completed less than a month earlier, was Mrs Billington in the Character of St Cecilia.
Although no longer capable of working full-time as a portraitist, Reynolds in February 1790 discussed sittings for a new portrait of the prince of Wales for Lord Charlemont. ‘In short’, Thomas Dundas told Lord Charlemont, ‘Sir J. is determined that your picture should be an original’ (Charlemont MSS, 117). However, although Reynolds recorded a single appointment with the prince in his pocket book on 17 February, nothing came of the proposal. By July 1790 Boswell reported that Reynolds was able to do little more than to ‘amuse himself by mending a picture now and then’ (Reynolds, Discourses, ed. Rogers, 405, n.2).
Reynolds remained energetic throughout the spring of 1790, dining out with friends, frequently entertaining, and attending meetings at the Eumelian Club, the Society of Dilettanti, and the Club. As usual he spent the summer in London, except for a short stay at Beaconsfield with Edmund Burke, while in October he journeyed to Winchester and to Broadlands, Hampshire, where he was entertained by Lord Palmerston. Reynolds spent the autumn composing his fifteenth, and final, discourse. The discourse, given at the Royal Academy on 10 December 1790, proved a memorable occasion, not least because it appeared that the timbers supporting the floor of the Great Room at Somerset House were about to give way at any moment. Charles Burney recalled:
Sir Jos. had but just entered the room, when there happened a violent and unaccountable crack wch. astonished every one present. But no inquiry was made or suspicion raised of danger till another crack happened, wch. terrified the Compy. so much that most of them were retreating towards the door with great precipitation, while others call out—gently! gently! or mischief will be anticipated. (Hilles, Literary Career, 182)
Owing to immense sang-froid or possibly deafness, Reynolds was able to complete the reading of his discourse. He did so, succeeding in his desire that ‘the last words which I should pronounce in this Academy, and from this place, might be the name of—MICHAEL ANGELO’.