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Painting with FireSir Joshua Reynolds, Photography, and the Temporally Evolving Chemical Object$
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Matthew C. Hunter

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780226390253

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: September 2020

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226390390.001.0001

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Joshua Reynolds’s “Nice Chymistry” in the 1770s

Joshua Reynolds’s “Nice Chymistry” in the 1770s

(p.43) 2 Joshua Reynolds’s “Nice Chymistry” in the 1770s
Painting with Fire

Matthew C. Hunter

University of Chicago Press

This chapter explores Joshua Reynolds’s experiments with unstable chemical materials both in his painting practice and in his theory of art. It places the painter in his native environs of Plymouth where Reynolds maintained strong connections to makers of watches and precision time-keeping instruments (including members of the Mudge and the Northcote families), along with artists known for their chemical experimentation. The chapter then tracks Reynolds’s involvement with chemical experiment at the early Society of Arts in London and in his own studio. Considered against the practices of seemingly more experimental contemporaries such as Joseph Wright of Derby, the chapter closely examines the preparation, delivery and aftermath of Reynolds's controversial sixth discourse to the Royal Academy in 1774, which would align academic art with what the painter called “nice chymistry.” Read against contemporaneous debates about the representation of time in history painting, the chapter argues that Reynolds’s strange “infant portraits” of the early 1770s constitute the most telling manifestation of his chemical work. The chapter concludes by placing these unstable paintings between ideas of the chemical homunculus and the time proper to the fine arts themselves.

Keywords:   Joshua Reynolds, Portraiture, James Northcote, Joseph Wright of Derby, Neoclassicism, Representation of Time, Art and Science, British Art, Homunculus, Immanuel Kant

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