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Reynolds’s Justice: A Vision of Eighteenth-Century English Common Law

Reynolds’s Justice: A Vision of Eighteenth-Century English Common Law

Sir Joshua Reynolds,  Justice,  oil on canvas, 1778-79, 223.5 x 83.8 cm, Private Collection.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Justice, oil on canvas, 1778-79, 223.5 x 83.8 cm, Private Collection.

Sir Joshua Reynolds painted, in 1778-79, an image of justice in the form of a woman dressed in classical garb with a sword in one hand and scales in the other.  Unlike typical images of this virtue, however, Reynolds’s Justice is not wearing a blindfold but gazes out from under the shadow of her raised arm.  What were Reynolds’s intentions behind the absence of this particular symbol? 

Contemporary legal theory may assist with the interpretation of this particular depiction of justice.  Sir William Blackstone wrote about justice in his influential treatise on English common law, Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769).  In this treatise, Blackstone unraveled centuries of English common law and clarified foundational legal principles, such as the administration of justice.  Although working in different “media,” Reynolds and Blackstone were not immune to the socio-political principles popular during the eighteenth-century Age of Enlightenment and the neoclassical movement.  Each man’s depiction of justice, either in text or paint, shares a common foundation rooted in the ideals and principles of this era.  With these mutual origins, Blackstone’s explanation of the law in the Commentaries provides an important key to unlocking the potential meaning of Reynolds’s depiction of Justice and the enigmatic absence of the blindfold. 

 Sir Joshua Reynolds & Eighteenth-Century Painting

 The philosophers, artists, writers, and jurists of the eighteenth century all drew inspiration from the art and culture of antiquity.  An unprecedented range of archaeological discoveries extending from the Mediterranean, Egypt, and the Near East fueled this interest in and deference to ancient Greek and Roman history.  The Grand Tour exposed the European upper-class to classical and Renaissance art and in turn spread this interest throughout the continent.  Inspired by the past, the scientific and philosophical scholars of this Age of Enlightenment cultivated new intellectual and moral principles based on a shared exercise of and dedication to rational thought.  A sense of order and systematization prevailed in many different contexts, with an emphasis on the expression of the ideal derived from nature or a higher power. (Bristow 2017). Both art and the law were not immune to these intellectual developments.

Sir Joshua Reynolds

Sir Joshua Reynolds,  Self-Portrait,  oil on canvas, circa 1747-1749, 25 in. x 29 1/4 in. (635 mm x 743 mm), National Portrait Gallery NPG 41.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Self-Portrait, oil on canvas, circa 1747-1749, 25 in. x 29 1/4 in. (635 mm x 743 mm), National Portrait Gallery NPG 41.

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) was the foremost portrait painter in eighteenth-century England.  While Reynolds mostly painted portraits of the Georgian upper class, his style invoked classical values, copying with a rich palette poses from antiquity and the Old Masters.  (Mannings 2013). As President of the Royal Academy of Art, he lectured on this style and theory of painting in his annual addresses to membership, published in Discourses on Art.  In his first address, Reynolds praised the Academy as a repository for the great examples of art where students can study these models as an “idea of excellence which is the result of the accumulated experience of past ages.”  (Reynolds 1769-1791).  Expanding upon this veneration of the past, he encouraged students to study the forms of classical sculpture to advance their understanding of the ideal beauty.  (Mannings 2013). Yet Reynolds also warned students and young artists that art was not just about mere mechanical imitations but the expression of intellectual effort.  (Mannings 2013). 

Reynolds’s Justice

Reynolds painted Justice, commissioned in 1777, along with several other full-scale paintings as part of a commission for a new stained glass West Window at University of Oxford’s New College.  Justice along with paintings of Temperance, Fortitude, Faith, Charity, Hope, and Prudence provided the basis from which the glass artist worked when constructing the new window.  Reynolds’s oil paintings were sold at auction in the 1820s.  Justice is now in a private collection. 

Reynolds’s Justice, garbed in classical dress of plain salmon-pink robes, stands against a stormy sky.  Her clothing serves as a nod to the past and the classical virtues of symmetry and simplicity.  With a sword in her right hand and scales in her left, she carries the traditional symbols of justice: power and impartiality.  She is not blindfolded but gazes outward with the shadow of her arm falling upon her face.  It is difficult to interpret the precise meaning of her gaze.  Is it authoritative?  Is it quizzical?  Is it puzzled?

Throughout history, the archetypal image of justice wore a blindfold.  This symbol, along with a sword and scales, indicated impartiality, righteousness, or even in some cases incapacity.  (Goodrich 2014, 141). Medieval images of justice were generally of a woman, seated on a cloud in the manner of a god to emphasize justice’s divine exclusivity.  (Goodrich 2014, 131).  Despite her evolving form, every image of justice has sought to impress some belief or principle about the law.  What does the absence of the blindfold with Reynolds’s Justice say about justice and the law?

 Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries & Justice 

Unknown artist,  Sir William Blackstone,  oil on canvas, circa 1755, 49 in. x 39 1/4 in. (1245 mm x 997 mm), National Portrait Gallery, NPG 388.

Unknown artist, Sir William Blackstone, oil on canvas, circa 1755, 49 in. x 39 1/4 in. (1245 mm x 997 mm), National Portrait Gallery, NPG 388.

Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780) was an English jurist, judge, and politician.  He was elected as the first Vinerian Professor of English Law at the University of Oxford in 1758.  Between 1765-1769, he published the four volumes of the Commentaries on the Laws of England, the definitive eighteenth-century treatise on English common law. 

 Blackstone’s Commentaries were one of the most widely read legal texts during the eighteenth century.  English common law at that time was derived from an accumulation of centuries of custom and precedent and thus in great need of some type of reform.  With such a challenge before it, Blackstone’s Commentaries achieved the extraordinary goal of clarifying and refining English law in a “clear, concise, and intelligible form.”  (Dicey 1932, 286).  In a manner accessible not only to the lawyer but also to the layman, these writings presented English common law as a coherent system comprised of basic building blocks of fundamental legal principles.  (Kadens 2009, 1561).  The influence of Blackstone’s Commentaries even extended to the American colonies and the foundations of American politics and law. 

Blackstone wrote about justice in the chapter introducing the general English legal customs within the first volume of the Commentaries.  For Blackstone, justice is rooted in a strong adherence to precedent, which is binding upon judges.  (Kadens 2009, 1558).  The Commentaries explained that judges, in order to administer justice, must rely upon their knowledge of prior judicial decisions to define and apply the law.  (Lubert 2010, 283).  A judge, therefore, does not have unlimited discretion; they cannot pronounce new law based on their own judgment but must maintain the “old” law.  (Blackstone 1765, 69).  According to Blackstone, justice arises not from the arbitrary will of a particular judge but only under law that is “permanent, fixed, and unchangeable.”  (Blackstone 1765, 137). This devotion to precedent facilitates equity within the legal system with “the scale of justice [remaining] even and steady” and not “waver[ing] with every new judge’s opinion.”  (Blackstone 1765, 69).

Commentaries on Justice 

Reynolds’s Justice and Blackstone’s Commentaries are both products of the eighteenth-century.  Cut from the same cloth, so to speak, the Commentaries can provide some background to guide an interpretation of Reynolds’s “visual commentary” of Justice. Blackstone was no stranger to the arts as he completed an architectural treatise and drew his own illustrations for his architectural texts.  (Martinez 2014, 38-39).  He applied these artistic skills to the law by using visual aids such as maps and tables to effectively explain complex principles and to show connections within the law.  (Martinez 2014, 48).  One scholar has even concluded that aesthetic considerations directed Blackstone’s systematic and orderly approach to the law. (Martinez 2014, 45).  Like an artist, Blackstone’s own writings highlight certain details while subjugating others in order to achieve an overall desired effect.  The presence or absence of specific details within a work, like a blindfold, convey a certain meaning within the general interpretation of the work, regardless of the medium. 

To See or Not to See? Justice & the Blindfold

While Reynolds’s familiarity with Blackstone or even his true intentions with this particular depiction of justice are unclear, the basic building blocks of the law as described in the Commentaries help to delineate and explain certain details in the painting by providing a potential legal framework as the basis for interpretation.  

Examination and Application of Precedent

The Commentaries forbade the use of personal discretion to ensure that judges are not inserting their own opinions about the law that would result in a subjective and thus unjust application of the law.  (Kadens 2009, 1589-90).  As stated in the Commentaries, a judge does not rule “according to his own private judgement, but according to the known laws and customs of the land.”  (Blackstone 1765, 69).  The Commentaries explained that judges must consult precedent to guide their decisions and legal analyses.  Legal precedent derives from previous cases that establish a rule or principle that is later used by the court when deciding other cases with similar issues or facts.  Relying on precedent, according to Blackstone, maintains the “scale of justice [to be] even and steady and not liable to waiver with every new judge’s opinion.”  (Blackstone 1765, 69).  Precedent theoretically ensures that similar facts yield predictable outcomes – an equitable and just application of the law. 

 While Reynolds may not have been specifically referring to legal precedent, the reasoning behind this doctrine may have been the impetus for painting justice gazing at the viewer without a blindfold.  Precedent requires comparing facts and issues in order to apply the appropriate legal principle. This objective analysis requires “sight.”  One cannot examine certain facts and discern broad principles without looking at the law and facts as they stand.  The absence of the blindfold may suggest Reynolds’s understanding that, impartiality, a necessary component of justice, is derived from a proper examination of the facts and the law and not by approaching the problem blindly.  Precedent ideally offers this objective and rational application of the law and therefore an appropriate incubator for justice – an approach championed by the Age of Enlightenment thinkers.

An Exercise of Judgment

Blackstone in the Commentaries emphasized that precedent is binding, and such law is “permanent, fixed, and unchangeable.”  (Blackstone 1765, 137).  But Blackstone did grant a caveat to this rule: judges may disregard precedent if the law is contrary to reason or divine law or if the law is manifestly absurd and unjust.  (Alschuler 1996, 37).  Thus, Blackstone recognized that the supremacy of precedent is not absolute but somewhat flexible when confronted with reason. With this approach, rational thinking underlies justice by ensuring a proper balance between the law and the facts. 

In place of a blindfold, the shadow across Justice’s eyes may reflect this need to maintain a balance and equilibrium as certain facts may not be as easily discernible as others.  Her arm casting the shadow is indeed holding a balance that is “off-kilter,” emphasizing the need to exercise judgment in some cases where the outcome is not always clear according to the facts presented.  The shadow cast from Justice’s own arm may also indicate that she herself has the authority or the power to discern the information brought before her and to exercise the same rational thinking advocated by Blackstone. 

Responsibility for Justice 

Blackstone wrote the Commentaries as a vehicle to organize the morass of English common law into distinct and comprehensible legal principles.  While the Commentaries were one of the most widely legal texts of the eighteenth-century, Blackstone wrote the text with a specific audience member in mind: the legislator, whom he believed had not only the professional but also social responsibility of creating new law.  (Lubert 2010, 273).  Blackstone hoped that a more comprehensive knowledge of common law would enable Parliament to avoid repeating “incautious” legislative mistakes.  Reflecting the social compact theories popular in the eighteenth century, Blackstone’s writings underscore that the people, or more specifically their elected representatives, possess the authority and responsibility to knowledgeably shape the law. 

Justice’s gaze without the blindfold places a similar responsibility on the viewer and not necessarily some omnipotent, inaccessible authority.  Justice’s gaze is not the only part of the painting that alludes to the individual.  Despite the classical dress, Reynolds’s Justice very much “walks among us.”  Reynolds modeled her scales after those used in commerce and not traditional iconography, with one contemporary viewer of the painting comparing her to a butcher’s wife.  (Mannings 2000, 551).  She carries a sword but does not brandish it on high, indicating a non-aggressive source of authority.  She is not an untouchable or unreachable symbol but a real person “inhabiting an ideal and bringing it to life in her daily practice.”  (Manderson and Martinez 2017, 257).  One cannot ignore, however, the significance of the intended location of Justice: a chapel window, positioned, along with the other virtues, below a depiction of the nativity.  Presenting an allegorical lesson, justice and the other virtues compose the ideal for which the individual must strive.  For both Blackstone and Reynolds, the reader or viewer embraces an important role and responsibility in achieving this ideal.  

Observations of Justice 

Blackstone, with the Commentaries, provided an organized structure for English common law outlining specific principles as building blocks for the law.  In turn, he clarified and made accessible complex areas of the law for both the legislator and the layman.  His principles for justice as administered by the courts attempted to ensure equity and balance through adherence to precedent.  Reynolds depicted Justice as a woman garbed in classical robes gazing at the viewer through a shadow cast by her arm holding a scale.  This depiction of Justice may seem baffling.  But Blackstone’s Commentaries provides some insight into the meaning behind Reynolds’s Justice with the common backdrop of eighteenth-century intellectual achievements.

Both depictions of justice center around rational thought achieved through the balancing of various facts and principles.  Such rational thinking leads to a higher ideal not necessarily rooted in the divine but among individuals themselves.  The viewer and the reader play important roles in the administration of justice.  While Reynolds’s Justice gazes towards the audience, Blackstone placed the onus of creating new and superior law on his primary audience: legislators.  The democratic ideal inspired by the ancient civilizations appears in both works.  Without the blindfold, justice can confront the source and meaning of her own authority and power: the viewer. 



Blackstone, Sir William. 1765. Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book I. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Bristow, William. 2017. Enlightenment. Accessed April 14, 2018. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/enlightenment.

Dicey, A.V. 1932. "Blackstone's Commentaries." The Cambridge Law Journal 4 (3): 286-307.

Goodrich, Peter. 2014. Legal Emblems and the Art of Law. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lubert, Howard L. 2010. "Sovereignty and Liberty in William Blackstone's 'Commentaries on the Laws of England'." The Review of Politics 12 (2): 271-297.

Manderson, Desmond, and Cristina S. Martinez. 2017. "Justice and Art, Face to Face." Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities 241-263.

Mannings, David. 2013. "Reynolds, Sir Joshua." Grove Art Online.Accessed February 2, 2018. http:////www.oxfordartonline.com/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000071710.

—. 2000. Sir Joshua Reynolds; A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Martinez, Cristina S. 2014. "Blackstone as Draughtsman: Picturing the Law." In Re-interpreting Blackstone's Commentaries, by Wilfred Prest, 31-58. Oxford: Hart Publishing.

Reynolds, Sir Joshua. 1769-1791. Seven Discourses on Art. London.

 Alschuler, Albert W., Rediscovering Blackstone, 145 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1 (1996). 

 Kadens, Emily, Justice Blackstone’s Common Law Orthodoxy, 103 Nw. U.L. Rev. 1553 (2009). 


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