Jonathan Richardson's Self-Portrait

Self-portrait by English artist Jonathan Richardson, 1733The portraitist Jonathan Richardson was the first English painter to write a treatise on art. He studied art and the literature of art from France and Italy, and amassed a formidable collection of drawings by the great masters of the past (the Princeton University Art Museum is fortunate to possess several drawings from his collection, a point of pride for any collection). With his son, Richardson wrote a book on art in Italy based on Richardson Jr.’s travels, for Richardson Sr. never went there; this volume would become a vade mecum for Britons embarking on the Grand Tour. Richardson was thus a key figure in British art, a follower of the portraitist Sir Godfrey Kneller and a precursor to the founding president of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds. 

Only after Richardson’s death was another aspect of his activity revealed. Nearly daily beginning in 1728, during his seventeen years of retirement, he drew or sometimes painted a self-portrait to begin the day. Inspired by the practice of Rembrandt and other artists, he depicted himself in various ways, often informally without a wig, as here. All of these works remained together until the time of his posthumous sale. They may have been exercises in draftsmanship and painting, to keep his hand nimble, but they also seem to have had a meditative and self-improving aspect, like the poetry he wrote during the same period. The present portrait will complement the Museum’s painted self-portraits by French artists—Jean-Baptiste Wicar, ca. 1796, or Johann Friedrich Waldeck, ca. 1833—as well as works on paper devoted to the theme by artists of various times and nationalities. This painting can also be approached in an interdisciplinary way, as a visual equivalent to an autobiography or a personal, self-reflective essay.