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Reynolds’s portrait of his close friend, the Italian writer and translator Giuseppe Baretti (1719-89) – on which this print is based – shows him emerging from the dark background of a gentleman’s study into the critical spotlight of Reynolds’s brush. Baretti’s turbulent past, as an antagonistic author who was acquitted of murder through the testimonies of his friends, including Reynolds, is here side-lined – banished into the shady surroundings. Reynolds instead chooses to present his friend as an enlightened man, characterised by his sharp intelligence and ardent commitment to literature. This image – which was painted for Henry Thrale’s library at Streatham Park – is complimentary to his friend’s intellect, but is also one of Reynolds’s few ‘true’ portraits. In painting his friend, a member of ‘The Club’ founded by Reynolds and Johnson, he is able to paint a realistic depiction of what he sees – a relaxed, fashionable man, totally enthralled by his book – without the risk of causing offence. This is exemplified by the excessively close proximity of Baretti’s face and his book, exposing his extreme short-sightedness – a personality trait which the defence used in his trial.

Reynolds is clearly influenced here by his time spent in Italy and his study of the chiaroscuro of Rembrandt. During his visits to the galleries of Rome on his Grand Tour, the young artist copied Rembrandt’s work, and he retained an interest in the Dutch painter throughout his career. The pictorial motif of the head and shoulders of the sitter materialising from a darkened background is typical of the earlier artist and can be seen particularly well in his self-portraits, such as that of 1629. The fine details of the print also reflect the style of Rembrandt. Reynolds’s sharp touches of paint, particularly around the eyes, and on the finer details of Baretti’s coat reflect a close analysis of his friend but also a consideration of the effects of light upon his figure.

Reynolds has painted his friend as a scholar, engaged in study – his gaze entirely focused upon the little book he clasps in his hands – as though he were unaware that his likeness is being captured in paint. The dark, shadowy backdrop almost threatens to consume the subject, and ribbons of deep chiaroscuro creep along his forehead, across his torso and up his left arm. The darkness that surrounds him reminds the viewer of his chaotic past. However, the silhouette created by his facial profile and bent right arm, which are bathed in a bright white light emphasises the sitter’s mind and hand, evoking his aptitude for learning and his literary profession. The fact that half his face is hidden from the viewer suggests a more introspective and private side to the sitter – he has not forgotten his misdeeds. Reynolds’s simultaneously exposes two sides of his friend – the respected writer and publisher of periodicals, but also a man with a questionable past. The artist has thus cleverly manipulated light and shade to convey the character of his sitter.

By Louisa Bentley