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Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1756-1757 - NPG 1597 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Samuel Johnson

by Sir Joshua Reynolds
oil on canvas, 1756-1757
50 1/4 in. x 40 in. (1276 mm x 1016 mm)
Given by an anonymous donor, 1911
Primary Collection
NPG 1597

On display in Room 12 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sitterback to top

  • Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), Poet, critic and lexicographer. Sitter associated with 50 portraits.

Artistback to top

  • Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), Painter and first President of the Royal Academy. Artist associated with 1413 portraits, Sitter associated with 38 portraits.

This portraitback to top

Massively ungainly and plagued with nervous tics, Dr Johnson was a victim of melancholia and could not bear solitude. He had an immense circle of friends and was one of the greatest conversationalists of all time. This portrait of him as a man of letters was painted by his friend Reynolds shortly after the publication of his Dictionary of the English Language of 1755, a prodigious labour which remains a monument to his scholarship as well as to his forthright personality. It was about this time that Johnson wrote his famous letter to Lord Chesterfield rebuking his former patron for his neglect. Information about the conservation of this work is available on the Gallery's website at

Related worksback to top

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Audio Guide
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Ingamells, John, National Portrait Gallery: Mid-Georgian Portraits 1760-1790, 2004, p. 288
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 340
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 104 Read entry

    This portrait of the poet Samuel Johnson, by his close friend Joshua Reynolds (1723–92), was painted shortly after the publication of Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755). While not the first dictionary of English to appear, Johnson’s work was by far the most ambitious, and his infamous wit and intellect shone through the definitions, making it his most celebrated work. The success of this project was hard won. In 1737, when Johnson first came to London from Lichfield, he was so poor that, for the journey, he had to share a horse with his friend, the actor David Garrick. Johnson would become acclaimed as an essayist, critic, biographer and editor, despite suffering greatly from nervous tics and recurrent bouts of depression. A man who also could not bear solitude, he was a most entertaining conversationalist and intellectual with a wide circle of friends. Reynolds founded the Literary Club in 1764 to give Johnson unlimited opportunities for talking.

    This portrait remained unfinished in Reynold’s studio until after Johnson’s death. In 1789 it was given to Johnson’s close friend and biographer James Boswell, who was looking for the most incisive likeness of the writer to engrave for the frontispiece of his Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), the book that secured Johnson’s enduring reputation.

  • Woof, Robert; Hebron, Stephen, Romantic Icons, 1999, p. 9

Events of 1756back to top

Current affairs

Government falls after criticism of its handling of the Seven Years War. Prime Minister Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle is succeeded by William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire, who forms a ministry effectively run by William Pitt the Elder.

Art and science

Satiristist Thomas Rowlandson is born in Old Jewry in the City of London. His main rival James Gillray is born exactly a month later in Chelsea.
Completion of William Edwards' Old Bridge, Pontypridd; the longest single span bridge in Britain for the next forty years.


'Black Hole of Calcutta': a group of British prisoners, including East India Company servant John Zephaniah Holwell, are locked in a small, overcrowded dungeon overnight when Fort William in Calcutta is captured by troops of the Nawab of Bengal. Holwell claims 123 of the 146 prisoners died.
Outbreak of the Seven Years War in which Britain, Hanover, Prussia and Denmark are pitted against France, Austria, Russia and Sweden.

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