This picture, most probably painted during the artist's sojourn in Rome, 1750-52, is an important new discovery, and a significant addition to Reynolds's celebrated series of self-portraits.
While it has been proposed that the portrait may possibly pre-date the artist's visit to Italy, the mood of the picture, and the coarse weave and size of the canvas, suggest that it was executed in Rome. There, in the spring of 1750, further down a list headed 'Copies of Pictures I made at Rome', Reynolds recorded 'My own picture'. Another self-portrait (private collection, see D. Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds, A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, New Haven and London, 2000, no. 3, fig. 59) has tentatively been associated with this reference, yet is painted on a standard 30 x 25 in. English canvas. The possibility that the entry may refer to the present picture cannot be discounted.
The earliest known self-portrait is a drawing of circa 1740 (private collection, see D. Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds, The Self Portraits, catalogue to the exhibition at Gainsborough's House and Plymouth City Art Gallery, 1992, no. 1), while the earliest oil is a work of circa 1746 (private collection, see Mannings, 2000, op.cit., no. 1, fig.25). The celebrated portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, London (see fig. 1; Mannings, 2000, op,cit., no. 2, fig. 43), was thought by Sir Ellis Waterhouse to have been executed shortly after the artist's return from Italy, but is now generally believed to be a pre-Italy work of circa 1747/48.
If the present work is believed to have been painted in Rome, it shows the young artist at a crucial moment in his artistic development. As he wrote to Lord Edgecumbe shortly after his arrival: 'I am now at the height of my wishes, in the midst of the greatest works of art the world has produced'. The only self-portrait known to have been executed in Rome is the chalk drawing, inscribed and dated 'Rome May 1750', in the British Museum (see fig. 2, Mannings, 1992, op. cit., no. 5), which, it could be argued, is similar in spirit. Both portraits display a brooding thoughtfulness combined, in their informality and the penetration of the gaze, with an unshakeable confidence.
Chronologically, the next in the artist's series of self-portraits shows him aged about thirty, painted soon after his return from Italy, circa 1753-55 (Tate Britain, see fig. 3, Mannings, 2000, op.cit., no. 4, pl. 7). This, interestingly, has clear compositional affinities with the present work.
The picture is believed to have been in the current vendor's family for several generations. The coincidence of names with the purchaser of lot 17 in Lawrence's sale in 1830 (see provenance), and the aptness of the description of that work, are tantalising. The Christie's catalogue introduces 'The Valuable Collection of Paintings by Ancient and Modern Masters of Sir Thomas Lawrence, Late President of the Royal Academy, Deceased: Comprising Highly interesting specimens of the talent of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Wilson, [etc.]'. In total there were four works described as being self-portraits by Reynolds: Lot 72, 'His own Portrait, in an oval; height 30 by 25' was bought by Peacock and is now believed to be the work in Tate Britain (see fig. 3, details above); while the whereabouts of lots 14, 'His own Portrait, on wood' (bought by Harrison?), and 102, 'The Portrait of Himself, seated at his easel: height 30 by 25' (bought, like the present work, by Strutt) are not known.