Analysis of Sir Joshua Reynolds First Discourse to the Royal Academy of Art 

The first President of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds, delivered fifteen Discourses over a period of 18 years to the Academy's student body and faculty members. Orated in 1769 at the opening of the Royal Academy, the first Discourse introduces progressive advice on the subject of Art. The totality of Reynolds Discourses encapsulate the comprehension of an adept in his field. Rich with useful insights and poignant analogies, it is clear that he possessed an intellect of the first order with which he described the practical mechanics of painting. Upon analysis the lectures have great relevance for today's artists and to that end a careful synopsis of all discourse will clarify and elucidate its key points.

The first Discourse is structured around the theme of diligence. Reynolds opens with words of praise to the reigning monarch and illustrates the need of the British Empire to have, "an ornament suitable to its greatness", that is to say, an Academy of Art. With the customary platitudes fulfilled, Reynolds moves on to define his notion of the Academies purpose, namely to, "furnish able men to direct the student", and to be, "a repository for the great examples of the Art." These statements exemplify Reynolds conception of the primary function of the Academy, its means and its ends. Lamenting the loss to Britain of potential artists of noteworthy talent, Reynolds reasons that it was due, in part, to the lack of an Academy and the works of Art which such an Academy would be the repository for. He elaborates with a beautiful soliloquise placing the emphasis for artistic instruction primarily on the tangible examples of great Art in preference to tutorial direction. Reynolds adds;

"How many men of great natural abilities have been lost to this nation for want of these advantages! They never had an opportunity of seeing those masterly efforts of genius, which at once kindle the whole soul. Raffaelle, it is true had not the advantage of studying in an Academy; but all Rome and the works of Michael Angelo in particular were to him an Academy. On the sight of the Capella Sistina, he immediately from a dry, Gothic, and even insipid manner,..assumed that grand style of painting, which improves partial representation by general and invariable ideas of nature."

Sir Joshua resolves his position explaining that an Academy should not thrust a foreign attitude upon the student, because such a forceful attempt will have the opposite effect, namely in deterring the student from adopting a view that they are not ready to accept. On the contrary, in Reynolds view, an Academy should be an environment within which a student can adopt the particular views and practices that are amenable to his or her own particular outlook and aptitude. Speaking on the subject he remarks;

"Every seminary of learning may be said to be surrounded with an atmosphere of floating knowledge where every mind may imbibe somewhat congenial to its own original conceptions. Knowledge, thus obtained, has always something more popular and useful than that which is forced upon the mind by a private precepts."

With this said Sir Joshua delivers a cautionary aside. Observing the fact that Continental Academies had by his time collapsed, Reynolds outlines the London Academies distinguishing quality and its saving grace adding;

"As these Institutions have so often failed in other nations; and it is natural to think with regret, how much might have been done, I must take leave to offer a few hints, by which those errors may be rectified... The Professors and Visitors may reject or adopt as they shall think proper" (namely) "It will not be as it has been in other schools where he that traveled fastest only wandered farthest from the right way."

What exactly was Reynolds idea of the right way? This he defined as an adherence to the "Rules of Art as established by the practice of the Old Masters." On this basis he entreats the students of the Royal Academy to regard the works of the Old Masters to be the very acme of Art instruction, advising that they should use; "those models as perfect and infallible guides; as subjects for their imitation." Continuing the subject of "the right way", Sir Joshua had some very strong things to say in defense of the Rules of Art, in effect consigning those unversed in the procedure of The Rules, to the wastes of mediocrity. In this capacity Reynolds was a zealous advocate of the need for careful and disciplined practice along lines parallel to those of the Old Masters. Sir Joshua regarded this as the touchstone of Art instruction, adding;

"Every opportunity... should be taken to discountenance that false and vulgar opinion, that Rules are the fetters of genius; they are fetters only to men of no genius; as armour which upon the strong is an ornament and a defense, upon the weak... becomes a load, and cripples the body which it was made to protect."

When fully acquired Reynolds adds that such, "Rules may possibly be dispensed with. But let us not destroy the scaffold until we have raised the building." This analogy implies that before a student can advance towards a level concordant with that of the Old Masters they must first acquire a thorough understanding of the "Rules of Art". The remainder of Reynolds first discourse centers on his warning which cited that, it was due to wandering from the, "right way," by failing to properly observe the "Rules of Art", that resulted in the collapse of academies in other nations. In this vein Sir Joshua advises the Academies teaching faculty to remain vigilant against its young students tendency to seek a short cut to excellence. The expedient to which he refers to is that of bypassing hard and careful craftsmanship due to the deterrent of the great effort involved in its regular maintenance and pursuit. Reynolds explains further that the student is;

"Terrified at the prospect before them, of the toil required to attain exactness. The impetuosity of youth is disgusted at the slow approaches of a regular siege, and desires... to find some shorter path to excellence, and hope to obtain the reward of eminence by other means than those, which the indispensable rules of art have prescribed... there is no easy method of becoming a good painter."

Reynolds defines the students short cut as the desire to acquire; "a lively handling of the chalk or pencil" which "they will find no great labour in attaining" and "after much time spent in these frivolous pursuits, the difficulty will be to retreat; but it will be then too late and there is scarce an instance of return to scrupulous labour after the mind has been debauched and deceived by this fallacious mastery." There is an obvious touch of irony in Reynolds use of the word "mastery" in this context. As a fitting contrast to those students who would seek mastery through less assiduous means, Sir Joshua proceeds to delineate the difference between the short path and the intensive labour exerted by the Old Masters in the production of their Art.

"When we read the lives of the most eminent Painters, every page informs us, that no part of their time was spent in dissipation. When they conceived a subject, they first made a finished drawing of the whole; after that a more correct drawing of every separate part, - heads, hands, feet, and pieces of drapery; they then painted the picture, and after all retouched it from the life."

Reynolds goes on to explain how the effect of all this labour underpins a result that simply appears to be effortless in the finished painting. This appearance of ease serves to conceal the great exertions applied by the Old Masters to the task of painting, and deceives the eye and the intellect of the student into believing that a quick path will obtain an equal result. This, Sir Joshua explained, is an erroneous conclusion, one which seduces the student into following a route that fails to reach is intended destination. Sir Joshua observes; "The pictures thus wrought with such pains now appear like the effects of enchantment,... as if some mighty genius had struck them off at a blow." Recall that this current precaution links back to Reynolds desire to avoid the source of other Academies failure. Driving the point home still further Sir Joshua entreats his students to avoid what he considered to be the main defect of; "the methods of education pursued in all the Academies." Reynolds proposes that a student should first learn to draw exactly what he perceives, because otherwise he will risk repeating the errors of students in the failed academies. Such students, Reynolds claims, added extraneous artifacts to the subjects at hand, artifacts which being supplied by imagination served to distort the true structure of the visual form. Putting his case with eloquence, Reynolds states;

"The error is that the students never draw exactly from the living models they have before them. They change the form according to their vague and uncertain ideas of beauty, and make a drawing rather of what they think the figure ought to be, than of what it appears... grace and beauty... was not acquired by the ancients, but by an attentive and well compared study of the human form."

Sir Joshua advances the pre-eminence of drawing, with an eye for precision, by giving as an example a particular drawing made by Raphael, entitled, 'The Dispute of the Sacrament'. In this drawing Reynolds points out that in rendering the form of a hat upon the heads of different figures, Raphael does not deviate from the path of correct draftsmanship; "even at a time when he was allowed to be at his highest pitch of excellence." Elaborating on the theme of precision and faithful observation, Reynolds begins to conclude his seminal discourse to the Royal Academy. Beseeching its audience, in the most delicate and unassuming manner, to regard the importance of diligent application to the task of acquiring the skills of true and precise draftsmanship. This, as has been demonstrated, was Reynolds conception of the basis of successful painting, one which he formulated into a "Rule of Art", which he envisioned to be the principle that would save the Royal Academy from deterioration. Reynolds explains that;

"This scrupulous exactness is so contrary to the practice of the Academies, that it is not without great deference, that I beg leave to recommend to the consideration of the Visitors; and submit to them, whether the neglect of this method is one of the reasons why students so often disappoint expectation and being more than boys at sixteen become less than men at thirty"

As a final testament to the great and obvious concern expressed by Reynolds for the welfare of his students and Art in general, Sir Joshua finishes his first Discourse by expressing a moving personal sentiment. This being Reynolds final recorded word in a lecture on the subject of Art for almost a year, Sir Joshua considers the future course of the Academy, envisioning its potential to aid the development of civilization toward a new Renaissance, he states;

"Permit me to indulge my wishes and to express my hope that this institution may vie in Arts with that of Leo the Tenth; and that the dignity of the dying Art... may be revived."

With these poignant words, Reynolds concludes his first Discourse to the Students of the Royal Academy.

Analysis of Sir Joshua Reynolds Second Discourse to The Royal Academy Regarding Theory and Practice


Sir Joshua delivered the second installment of his 15 discourses a little over eleven months after his first on December the 11th 1769. He opens by praising the students for their current accomplishments and then proceeds to discuss his theory of Art. The purpose of his theoretical model of Art was to aid the students in their primary objective, which was namely directed at closing the gap between their current level of proficiency and, 'how much yet remains to attain perfection.' The central theme of the Second Discourse examines the nature of the independence of the student from the direction of the teaching establishment. To this end Reynolds emphasizes the importance of hands on methodological practices above mere ideology. Thus, building upon the basis of his First Discourse Sir Joshua divides his methodological theory into three inter-related aspects and three periods of study. He explains;

"I shall address you as having passed through the first of them, which is confined to the rudiments... of drawing any object that presents itself... the management of colours, and an acquaintance with the most simple and obvious rules of composition... The power of drawing, modelling, and using colours, is very properly called the language of art... when the artist is once enabled to express himself with some degree of correctness he must then endeavour to collect subjects for expression; to amass a stock of ideas... he is now in the second phase of his study."

The 'second period of study' pertains to the second aspect of theory which Reynolds refers to in the discourses preamble. This period of study involves viewing the Art of the Old Masters in its entirety wherein the student should, 'consider the Art itself as his master.' Here Reynolds is careful to warn the student of Art against,'admiration of a single master', because it would, in his opinion, impede the development of a students imagination with, 'narrowness and poverty of conception.' Reynolds instead advises the student of Art to, 'not resign blindly to any single authority, when he may have the advantage of consulting many.' Reynolds second aspect of Art theory, is to view the Art of the Old Masters without preference, and this aspect merges subtly into his third aspect of the theory. Sir Joshua explains the third aspect as not dependent or beholden to any of the Old Masters but places the student in a position of complete autonomy. Reynolds explains;

"The third and last period which emancipates the student from subjection to any authority, but what he shall himself judge to be supported by reason. Confiding now in his own judgement... He is from this time to regards himself as holding the same rank with those masters whom he before obeyed as teachers; and as exercising a sort of sovereignty over those Rules which have hitherto restrained him."

Continuing, Reynolds explains that through a period of intensive practise, a painter begins to develop the necessary artistic skills and knowledge base by emulating the work of the Old Masters. However, this knowledge base is, in Reynolds view, a foundation which the artist is to eventually transcend. What is the student of Art to progress toward after having reached a level of competence equivalent to that of the Old Masters? Sir Joshua explains that the next level to utilise for artistic instruction are the works of Nature itself. The artist is henceforth to become second only to Nature, and it is Nature that must become his constant guide and companion, and act as the measure by which the success or failure of a painters efforts can be evaluated. Reynolds states this succinctly;

"The habitual dignity which long converse with the greatest minds has imparted to him, will display itself in all his attempts; and he will stand among his instructors, not as an imitator, but a rival... comparing no longer the performances of Art with each other, but examining the Art itself by the standards of nature."

Having defined the three aspects of his theory to the students, Reynolds notes that this general outline lay in advance of the students current level of artistic proficiency. Recall that the Second Discourse was delivered following an awards ceremony at the Royal Academy. The awards that were dispensed were the Academies mark of esteem, bestowed upon those of its students, who at this time had passed through the first level of instruction in accordance with Reynolds first aspect of theory. The students were now poised to acquire the insights of the second aspect of theory, but were unaware of the procedure for doing so. This is the reason why Reynolds offered an early description of the complete path of learning, namely to assist the student of Art to understand his ultimate objective and the means of attaining it. However, in order to prevent the over-eager student from bypassing training in the second aspect of theory and rushing ahead to the third aspect, Reynolds encourages the student to develop a thorough understanding of the methods and works of the Old Masters. He explains;

"The more extensive your acquaintance is with the works of those who have excelled, the more extensive will be your powers of invention... Who shall show him the path that leads to excellence? The answer is obvious: those great masters who have travelled the same road with success are the most likely to conduct others. The works of those who have stood the test of ages, have a claim to that respect and veneration to which no modern can pretend."

While progressing along the second aspect of theory, Reynolds cautions against the tendency to copy the work of the Old Masters without exercising ones powers of invention, because as he suggests, it numbs the imagination and an artist, 'sleeps over his work', so to speak. Reynolds adds that the only saving grace of pure copying is its use as a tool in leaning how to use the coloured pigments of ones palette to the best advantage. He adds;

"By close inspection and minute examination you will discover the manner of handling, the artifices of contrast, glazing and other expedients by which good colourists have raised the value of their tints... by which nature has been so happily imitated."

Sir Joshua proceeds to reiterate the primacy of utilising the natural world as the ultimate model for the artists eventual imitation and instruction, stating, 'you cannot do better than have recourse to nature herself... in comparison to whose splendour the best coloured pictures are but faint and feeble.' Reynolds explains that the purpose of studying the work of the Old Masters is necessarily a means to perfect the students inner vision, rather than as a definite end in and of itself. In this respect, Sir Joshua advises the student to paint an original work in the spirit of an Old Master and then to physically hold the resulting painting up beside that of the Old Master. This act of contrast is an effective device for revealing the students areas of deficiency, and is a method which Reynold explains, is superior to verbal instruction in directing the student toward improvement. Reynolds uses the analogy of a competition to illustrate his point;

"You should enter into a kind of competition, by painting a similar subject, and making a companion to any picture that you consider as a model... place it near the model, and compare them carefully together. You will then not only see, but feel your own deficiencies more sensibly than by precepts... and sinking deep into the mind, will be not only more just, but more lasting than those presented to you by precepts only."

Sir Joshua explains that the above practice is difficult for those who lack the humility to accept the evidence of their failings. He comforts the students of Art however by reminding them that of those who have, 'the ambition to be a real master..few have been taught to any purpose, who have not been their own teachers.' Again Reynolds cautions the student to avoid absolute independence of thought while they are engaged in the practice of the second aspect of theory. He suggests that the models that the student of Art should choose for preliminary imitation should be, 'of established reputation,' and that this should be in preference to following, 'your own fancy.' In this respect Sir Joshua personally recommends the student to observe the work of Cavacci and suggests that they should avoid teachers who would offer, ' expedients... by which the toil of study might be saved.' He explains further that a student absorbed in the lessons appropriate to the second aspect of theory has to rely on hard work to realise their goal of equalling the abilities of the Old Masters. Reynolds adds;

"Excellence is never granted to man, but as the reward of labour... I need not, therefore, enforce by many words the necessity of continual application."

Reynolds explains that one important facet of the Old Masters abilities was their capacity for drawing accurately from memory with, as Reynolds says, 'as little effort of the mind as is required to trace with a pen the letters of the alphabet.' This, Reynold suggests, was the result of the same constant efforts which he has been urging the students of the Royal Academy to adopt. Reynolds praises constancy in drawing as, 'the instrument by which', the student, 'must hope to obtain eminence.' However, after pointing out the fact that various schools belonging to the history of Art followed disparate methods of drawing, Reynolds is careful to add almost as a kind of disclaimer that he had given his advice;

"From my own experience, but as the deviate widely from received opinions, I offer them with diffidence, and when better is suggested, shall retract them."

With this said, Reynolds goes on to defend his central theme, namely, that ability can only be developed through tough and prolonged practice, and he resolutely refuses to retract statements of this nature adding the justification that only, 'the vain, the ignorant, and the idle,' would oppose him in this regard. Hereafter Reynolds launches a campaign to promote the significance of constant and unwavering practice even when, a man cannot at all times, and in all places, paint and draw.' Sir Joshua suggests that the student of Art is enabled to practice perpetually by filling his mind with constant exercises upon the thought of Art, explaining his meaning thus;

"Every object that presents itself, is to him a lesson. He regards all Nature with a view to his profession... the Artist who has his mind thus filled with ideas... works with ease and readiness, whilst he who would have you believe he is waiting for the inspiration of Genius, is in reality at a loss how to begin."

Reynolds concludes his second discourse by reducing the essence of his remarks to the central theme that there are no secrets bestowed upon the artist by divine providence, no arcane mystery, which once resolved guarantees great accomplishments. There is according to Reynolds no path toward excellence except that of hard work and hard work alone. He surmises;

"He makes no pretensions to secrets except those of closer inspection... He is contented that all shall be as great as himself, who have undergone the same fatigue."


An Artist's Guide. Analysis of Sir Joshua Reynolds Third Discourse

Sir Joshua Reynolds presented his third of fifteen discourses to the Royal Academy of Art on December the 14th 1770. He opens with a brief synopsis of his previous two lectures by saying that foremost an aspiring painter must master the rudiments of his or her art by learning to draw, compose and colour his work. Upon this basis the student is then advised to thoroughly study the, 'work of those who have stood the test of ages,' namely the Old Masters of antiquity and in addition the forms of nature. Sir Joshua now explains that the latter study of nature must not become an end in itself, because it would risk producing an art which is unimaginative and mechanical. In Reynolds' teaching, Nature, can be malformed and subject to 'error, therefore he instructs his students to learn how to improve upon nature itself.

How can one achieve this? What follows is a subtle topic and one which it must be remembered is directed at the student of art during the 18th century, and as such the close study of visual objects is expected, much as a scientist would approach his or her study of the world today. Sir Joshua teaches that it is possible to internalise in one's mind the 'ideal' of beauty. This ideal is what enables 'all the arts to receive their perfection, superior to what is to be found in individual nature.' Speaking further on this point Sir Joshua contrasts the limited painters of his day with the favorite artist of antiquity, Phidias, he adds;

"Who takes such forms as Nature produces and confines himself to an exact imitation of them will never attain to what is perfectly beautiful, for the works of nature are full of disproportion and fall very short of the true standard of beauty."

The French express the 'ideal' of beauty as the 'beau ideal' whereas the Italians call it 'gusto grande.' Speaking to his students at the Royal Academy and by extension to the reader some two hundred and forty seven years later, Reynolds empathises with intermediate level painters. He understood 'that divine inspiration' which is so apparent in the great works of antiquity is very difficult to acquire. For those painters who believe that attaining to such heights is beyond their capability and seek to be taught by any authority Sir Joshua wryly comments, "could we teach taste or genius by rules they would no longer be taste and genius."


However he offers solace to his audience with some practical instruction. In order to transcend the defects of Nature and reach the 'ideal' beauty, which is the province of true genius, he teaches that "one must discover what is deformed in Nature" and then repeatedly compare all objects that display blemishes with those that are considered to be beautiful. In this manner a painter is not beholden to copying nature but following long years of scrutinising the differences between beautiful and ugly forms, an artist learns to internalise the archetype in common with all beautiful forms. Using this archetype, the artist will be able to portray beautiful forms from imagination and correct ugly forms in nature; a process in some ways similar to how a plastic surgeon can alter the disproportion of a face to appear more pleasing to the eye. As Sir Joshua puts it;

"It is not every eye that perceives blemishes. It must be an eye long used to the contemplation and comparison of, (beautiful and ugly, forms; and which by a long habit of observing what any set of objects of the same kind have in common, has acquired the power of discerning what each wants in particular... By this means he acquires a just idea of beautiful forms, he corrects nature, her imperfect state by her more perfect."

As the previous two discourses explain, a painter has by now developed all of the skills and techniques which enable him or her to copy nature, the artist has also thoroughly absorbed the works of the Old Masters and the secrets of composition contained within them. Now the painter is beholden to no authority and seeks his own way to portray the world, his own vision of it. Caravaggio, Titian or Rembrandt could paint the same theme and feature the same objects, though produce very different works. It is by virtue of their individual vision that they spontaneously create a world resembling our own, but at the same time variously individual. To pick up a pencil or brush and manifest something perfectly beautiful and harmonious, a face, a hand, a group of figures in a landscape, this is the genius that Sir Joshua is attempting to help the aspiring student to appreciate and to develop. Not mere slavish copying of the world around them. Sir Joshua adds;

"This idea of the perfect state of nature, which the artist calls the ideal beauty, is the great leading principle by which works of genius are conducted... and which seems to have a right to the epithet of divine as it seems to preside... over all the productions of nature."

If it is a fact and not merely classroom speculation that artists can develop an ability to manifest the 'ideal' beauty, then where is the best evidence of it to be found in Art? To this question Sir Joshua refers to the works of the ancient sculptors who "being indefatigable in the school of nature, have left models of that perfect form behind them." The display of perfect beauty within the sculpture of antiquity is repeatable, as has been shown in countless of their works. Therefore this must result from some sort of principle, otherwise such beauty would not be possible to repeat. What principle could this be, Reynolds asks, but from the thorough comparison between beautiful and ugly forms? Comprehension of such perfect or 'ideal' beauty is something that Sir Joshua believed is not inborn but is acquired only from the study of nature; "if felicity is meant anything of chance or something born with a man and not earned, I cannot agree." Is this entirely true? Perhaps a more moderate outlook would be to say that some people are born with a greater aptitude for grasping the 'ideal' beauty and that therefore such people would require less study of nature to internalise the archetype.

Moving on, Sir Joshua has demonstrated that to reach the archetype of beauty one must contrast many beautiful and ugly forms, but he now shows that a further impediment to reaching this archetype is ones own upbringing in society and the fashions of ones day, which can so condition our way of looking at the world that we can no longer see nature purely but mixed with human tastes and inventions. Reynolds contrasts the simplicity of nature, which is devoid of contrivance and is to be emulated, with forms adulterated by the fashions of a particular time period, which are to be avoided. He advises the aspiring painter to;

"Disregard all local and temporary ornaments and look only on those general habits which are every where and always the same... The prejudices in favor of the fashions and customs that we have been used to and which are justly called second nature, make it too often difficult to distinguish that which is natural from that which is the result of education."

How then is a painter to separate from the fashions of the day? Sir Joshua explains that it is again by studying the 'Ancients,' because their work is true to the "real simplicity of nature." Simplicity points toward the 'ideal' beauty and together these two constitute the mark of a great painter. Sir Joshua explains; "Beauty and simplicity have so great a share in the composition of a great style, that he who has acquired them has little else to learn." As he approaches the conclusion of his third discourse, Reynolds explains that a painter of greatness is not concerned with merely deceiving the eye by the preciseness of a depiction but is more interested with the grandeur of his or her subject, with its meaning and the power that such a work possesses to move the viewer deeply, in this way ranking art as a sister of poetry.

Having said that, Sir Joshua finishes by advising his students to remember the lessons of the previous two discourses and not to disdain the ability to draw and represent the world realistically, otherwise an artist would risk becoming sloppy and therefore become unable to justly represent the beau ideal in a simple way. In conclusion the third discourse advises students of art to not be slaves to what they perceive, but through the study of antiquity and analysis of the distinguishing features which separate beautiful and ugly forms, to internalise beauty's archetype and render it at will with due care to maintain simplicity and technical prowess.


A project to analyse the 15 discourses of the first president of the Royal Academy of Art London. Please click on a title for the published article. All rights reserved

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