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This print, after Reynolds’s 1747-8 self-portrait, was engraved by Samuel Reynolds in 1795. It is the only known self-portrait of Reynolds at work as a practising artist. He depicts himself with his palette, brushes and mahlstick, in front of a shadowy, blank canvas, following pictorial convention – yet the hand which he holds out in front of his face to shade his eyes is a bold statement, which creates a number of intriguing ambiguities. Firstly, the distinctive band of chiaroscuro which punctuates the light that falls on Reynolds’s face endows this enigmatic image with an air of secrecy, heightened by the mysterious black background. The dramatic darkness over his eyes creates a striking contrast to the lower part of his face, throwing it into relief – and the well-defined, intersecting strips of black and white give the impression of the artist having donned a theatrical mask.

As well as an obvious nod to the art of Rembrandt, perhaps we can also see this pictorial device as the precursor to the artist’s later portraits of aristocratic ‘beauties’, such as that of Mrs Richard Bennett Lloyd (see entry), where the play of light and shade upon their figures conveyed projection and withdrawal – highlighting or detracting from aspects of their public and private lives. Applying this idea here, we find the shadow cast over his eyes – the organs which we use to communicate with people. However, his hands – the tools an artist relies upon for his commerce – are brightly lit. Therefore, in this image, we can suggest that Reynolds shades his eyes to protect his private life and thoughts, while simultaneously presenting a public façade of himself as a practising artist to potential patrons.

The direction of his gaze, and the hand held out in front of him produces a further ambiguity by making the viewer question what exactly he is looking at. Has his attention been caught by something in the distance? Has he been momentarily distracted from his work? Or could he even be imagined to be engaged in painting our own portrait, implicating the spectator in the image? One way of reading the gesture is that the artist represents himself looking into the light of knowledge. About to depart on his Grand Tour, and at an early stage of his career, he presents himself surrounded by relative darkness, staring into a bright light, which could be symbolic of the knowledge he wishes to attain as he becomes more experienced. By looking at it in this way, the self-portrait also conveys the personality trait of imaginative curiosity that Reynolds possessed – one that led him to experiment with fusions of genres and styles in his portraiture. Reynolds was a well-read, intellectual man who was mostly self-taught through books that his father gave him. The striking contrast of light and dark that is deployed in this image works to convey the artist’s quest for future knowledge.

By Georgina Saunders