Zoomable Image of Self-Portrait as a Writer, c.1730s

Self-Portrait as a Writer, c.1730s

Jonathan Richardson (1667-1745)

Self-Portrait as a Writer, c.1730s

Jonathan Richardson (1667-1745)

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Oil on canvas


36 x 27.9 in (91.5 x 71 cm)


Private Collection, UK


Carol Gibson-Wood Jonathan Richardson: Art Theorist of the English Enlightenment (New Haven and London, 2000) Front cover illustration and p. 41, illustration 9

This Self-Portrait is one of the most enigmatic and significant works of Richardson's oeuvre as evidenced by its inclusion as the frontispiece to Gibson-Wood’s seminal scholarly text on his life and work...

Jonathan Richardson was one of the most significant and influential thinkers of the English Enlightenment. An extremely hardworking man, Richardson was an eminent expert on and collector of Old Master Drawings as well as being considered by his contemporaries to be one of the most prominent London portrait painters on the day. His Self-Portrait shown here is one of the most enigmatic and significant works of his oeuvre as evidenced by its inclusion as the frontispiece to Gibson-Wood’s seminal scholarly text on Richardson’s life and work.

A friend of artist Sir James Thornhill (1675-1734), the painter responsible for the decoration of the Painted Hall at Greenwich and the Dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, Richardson was an eminent theorist on artistic matters, no doubt influenced in part by his close friendship with Thornhill who was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1723. Richardson published his views on painting and his sketches for historical works are often accompanied by detailed historical research and theoretical points of view concerning composition. His scholarship was well-known and he was very much a modern polymath in respect of his academic pursuits.

In the present work, Richardson depicts himself as a philosopher and writer wistfully contemplating the presence of creative inspiration as he looks way from the viewer with determination. In 1712 Richardson wrote a monumental poetic text entitled ‘hymn to God’ which explored his own testimony of faith and conviction in divine wisdom and supreme assuredness in God’s predetermined scheme for the lives of all humanity both on an individual and broader human scale. This became common thought among English Enlightenment thinkers including Richardson’s future friend Alexander Pope (1688-1744).

In this self-portrait Richardson emphasises his Enlightenment position on the power of thought and reason but also his conviction that one should accept the philosophical importance of faith. His right hand, which bears a quill poised for the articulation of his thoughts, rests upon a plinth or book adorned with the word ‘solidarity’. In addition to this Richardson has inscribed these words in red paint faintly absorbed by the beam of light that illuminates the picture and that falls upon the artist’s cap: What shall be must. This heavenly light source further reinforce Richardson’s belief in divine influence as a source of scholarly inspiration. Richardson was surely one of the most influential and atypical practitioners of the English Enlightenment, not only producing fine works of art but a great wealth of scholarly writing on a great many subjects.

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