REYNOLDS, Sir Joshua
(b. 1723, Plympton Earl, d. 1792, London)

Captain Robert Orme

Oil on canvas, 240 x 147 cm
National Gallery, London

Joshua Reynolds, third son and seventh child of the Reverend Samuel Reynolds, was apprenticed at seventeen in London to the portrait painter Thomas Hudson, a Devonshire man like himself. Despite the uninspired example of Hudson, Reynolds succeeded in his ambition to become no 'ordinary' craftsman-painter: he established himself as a fashionable portrait painter, became friends with the most eminent men of letters in England, first president of the newly formed Royal Academy in 1768, and was knighted in 1769. Although he did not achieve greatness as a 'history painter', he invested his innumerable portraits of the privileged men and women of English society with the wit, poetic resonance and nobility of heroic narrative. His fifteen Discourses on Art, delivered at the Academy between 1769 and 1790, remain the most cogent and most moving tribute in English to the ideals of Western art grounded in the Italian Renaissance.

We now tend to prefer the fresher brush of his rival Gainsborough to Reynolds's contrivances. A restless and indiscriminate experimenter with media and pigments, imitating the surface effects of Old Master paintings without an understanding of their methods, he saw his pictures fade, flake and crack, so that portraits 'died' before their sitters. Even his contemporaries protested at his technical shortcomings. Yet the more we look at Reynolds, in the prodigious variety which Gainsborough rightly envied, the more we see that he indeed achieved what he defined as 'that one great idea, which gives to painting its true dignity...of speaking to the heart'. More than any English painter before him, in the 'great design' of 'captivating the imagination', Reynolds participated in 'that friendly intercourse which ought to exist among Artists, of receiving from the dead and giving to the living, and perhaps to those who are yet unborn' (Discourse Twelve).

Captain Robert Orme is one of the great romantic military portraits, painted soon after Reynolds established his London practice. When it was exhibited in 1761 at the Society of Artists, a visitor described it as 'an officer of the [Coldstream] Guards with a letter in his hand, ready to mount his horse with all that fire mixed with rage that war and the love of his country can give'. The sitter, Robert Orme (1725-90), served in America as aide-de-camp to General Braddock. When Braddock was killed in 1755 in an ambush by the French, Orme returned to England and resigned from the army. Some time in 1756 he sat for Reynolds.

Orme never purchased the portrait from the artist, in whose studio it attracted much notice 'by its boldness and singularity'. The composition may be freely adapted from drawings of Italian frescoes and Roman sculpture brought back by Reynolds from his journey to Italy in 1750-2; it may also allude to a portrait of Charles I by Van Dyck, now in Paris. But the effect is splendidly dramatic and immediate: the thunderous sky and extravagant lighting, Orme's windswept hair, the highlighted despatches in his hand, his foaming steed, the red coat pushed open by the ready sword - all suggest a heroic and transient moment in the life of the young officer.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.