Norma Clarke at The Times Literary Supplement:
Reynolds dominated British art for some three decades before his death in 1792, by which time the British portrait was firmly established. Jonathan Richardson, in his influential Essay on the Theory of Painting (1715), remarked of contemporary portraitists that they had “prostituted a Noble Art, chusing to exchange the honorable Character of good painters for that sordid one of profess’d, mercenary flatterers”. Richardson’s essay was a powerful influence on the young Reynolds. Reynolds went on to cultivate an excellent character as a painter, becoming the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts on its foundation in 1768 (a position he kept for the rest of his life) and acquiring a knighthood; meanwhile, understanding how important it was to distinguish himself from those whom William Hogarth labelled a “nest of Phizmongers”, he worked tirelessly to combat sordid associations. His success is all the more remarkable given his equally tireless attention to the business side of his art. Reynolds quickly became very famous and rich as a portraitist without attracting the opprobrium of being a mercenary flatterer. How did he do it?
Avoiding insipidity was a good start, and to leaf through Hallett’s sumptuous volume is to feel the vibrancy. In the early portraits especially, something is generally going on: Commodore Augustus Keppel is striding towards us (a boiling sea behind); David Garrick is being pulled one way by the muse of comedy and the other by tragedy; Colonel Acland and Lord Sydney are flying through the forest in “The Archers”, a gloriously silly masquerade of heroic masculinity which draws from Hallett one of his rare acknowledgements that Reynolds, in his determination to make the picture move, might sometimes “teeter on the brink of absurdity”.