Joshua Reynolds: The Artist Imitating Life

A friend in Japan sent me the catalog of a touring exhibition by the British Royal Academy of Arts, which recently visited his home town. It included a depiction of an idealized allegorical figure by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92). This image was not, however, nearly as good as his life studies of famous contemporaries.

One of the best of works of the artist – which is reproduced in a book I picked up last fall at a library sale – is his painting of Giuseppi Baretti, an Italian literary man who spent much of his time in England and was well known to their mutual friend, Samuel Johnson. Many of Reynolds’ works evince forays into early impressionism. But the paintings I enjoy most display the kind of interpretive realism found in the Baretti portrait. It reminds me of Holbein. The character of the subject is magnificently conveyed. Looking at it I could tell that this was a man who was near-sighted (by the way he’s holding a book close to his face), keenly intelligent, self-assured and also arrogant. How can you surmise this from a painting? It’s the sign of a great artist.

So it was with a sense of intellectual satisfaction that after seeing this portrait I read the following passage in the Life of Johnson. It does not name the Italian celebrity, but the footnote in my Oxford edition identifies the subject as Baretti. As the biographer James Boswell relates:

I told him that a foreign friend of his, whom I had met with abroad, was so wretchedly perverted to infidelity, that he treated the hopes of immortality with brutal levity; and said, ‘As man dies like a dog, let him lie like a dog.’ JOHNSON. ‘IF he dies like a dog, LET him lie like a dog.’ I added, that this man said to me, ‘I hate mankind, for I think myself one of the best of them, and I know how bad I am.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, he must be very singular in his opinion, if he thinks himself one of the best of men; for none of his friends think him so.’

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