JOHNSON, Dr SAMUEL (1709-1784, critic, poet and lexicographer)
Herman Liebert considered this 'the most powerful of all the Reynolds portraits of Johnson' and recalls Boswell's remark that 'His countenance was of the nature of...an ancient statue.'
The original portrait was painted and first exhibited in 1770 together with Reynolds's portrait of Goldsmith. They were both purchased by the third Duke of Dorset and have remained at Knowle ever since. The posing of Johnson's hands has been the subject of debate. Reynolds himself noticed that when 'Johnson was left out of the conversation, either from his deafness or from whatever cause, he remained but a few minutes without speaking or listening. His mind appeared to be preying on itself; he fell into a reverie accompanied with strange antic gesticulations.' Reynolds's sister, Frances, also noticed that: 'as for his gestures with his hands, they were equally strange, sometimes he would hold them up with some of his fingers bent, as if he had been seized with the cramp, and sometimes at his Brest in motion like those of a jockey on full speed; and often would he lift them up as high as he could stretch over his head, for some minutes.' On the other hand, David Piper and others saw the portrait as cast into a 'purely classic and heroic mould, minus wig and plus toga, a peripatetic philosopher, almost physically wrenching reason into words.' David Mannings believes that Reynolds combined both interpretations: 'an idealized likeness with a realistic but unflattering presentation of the hands.'
A replica was sent to Johnson's step-daughter, Lucy Porter, at Lichfield, and when Johnson visited the city of his birth in 1771 he wrote to Reynolds: 'When I came to Lichfield, I found my portrait had been much visited and much admired. Every man has a lurking wish to appear considerable in his native place, and I was pleased with the dignity conferred by such a testimony of your regard.'
Both examples of the portrait, that at Knowle and Lucy Porter's, now at Harvard, are in poor condition; the first having the face cracked and the shadows damaged by bitumen; the second being over-zealously restored. This is a case where the mezzotint retains details lost in the original painting. James Watson inherited Macardell's role as principal engraver to Reynolds in 1765 and made 60 plates of his work.
REFERENCES: Chaloner Smith 82; Goodwin - James Watson 70; Hamilton p.41; O'Donoghue 650/36; David Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, 2000; Herman Liebert, 'Portraits of the Author: Lifetime Likenesses of Samuel Johnson', English Portraits of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Papers read at a Clark Library Seminar, 14 April 1973), UCLA, 1974; K.K. Yung and others, Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784, 1984; Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004.