Edward John Poynter came from an artistic family. His great grandfather Thomas Banks was a sculptor, and his father Ambrose Poynter was an architect and watercolour painter. In 1866 he married Agnes Macdonald, the daughter of Rev. G. B. Macdonald, sister of Georgiana Burne-Jones, Alice Kipling and Louisa Baldwin. Their son Sir Ambrose Macdonald Poynter (1868-1923) became an architect.
In 1852 Poynter began his artistic education under Thomas Shotter Boys, who was a friend of his father. During 1853-54 he spent time in Rome, where he was impressed by the works of Frederic Leighton. Back in London he joined Leigh's Academy and then entered the studio of William Dobson. He entered the R.A. schools in 1855, but left to study in Charles Gleyre's studio in Paris in 1856. He remained there, in the company of fellow students George Du Maurier, Thomas Armstrong and Whistler, until 1859. The friendship of these men was recorded in Du Maurier's Trilby (1894).
Poynter had a varied artistic career. He began working in the decorative arts, designing stained glass and painting furniture. In 1860 William Burges employed him to decorate a ceiling in Waltham Abbey, Essex. He also contributed illustrations to Once a Week and other magazines, and designed twelve illustrations for Dalziel's Bible Gallery, which was not published until 1880.
He began exhibiting with the R.A. in 1861 and made his reputation in 1867 with his epic Israel in Egypt (Guildhall Art Gallery). He is particularly well known for his large classical, academic, history paintings of the late 1860s and 1870s, eg. The Caterpault, 1868 (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne). In the 1880s his works became smaller and more anecdotal in nature, influenced by the classical genre works of Lawrence Alma-Tadema, as for example, Outward Bound, 1886 (Tate Britain). Like Whistler he was a member of The Arts Club from 1863-1877.
Poynter's works also showed the influence of the aesthetes in their concern for beauty, colour harmony and the decorative female figure, and indeed, Poynter appears to have appreciated Whistler's work. Alan Summerly Cole wrote in his diary on 26 October 1876 concerning Whistler's Peacock Room: 'Met Poynter who spoke highly of Whistler's decoration' (#13132). In 1879, Whistler was glad of Poynter's company, meeting up with him and his wife on his way to Venice in 1879, and travelling with him as far as Milan. The Poynters were also in Venice for a time whilst Whistler was there and sent news back of him to Ernest G. Brown of the Fine Art Society (#01107). In 1892 David Croal Thomson wrote to Whistler that Poynter and his wife had been in the Goupil Gallery in London to view Whistler's exhibition Nocturnes, Marines and Chevalet Pieces, and that they had made a very careful observation of the works and had been 'very appreciative' and 'certainly sincere'. Thomson declared of Poynter, 'We know him to be one of the broadest minded men in the R.A. & hope that he will be P.R.A. yet' (#05716).
Poynter's career was a prestigious one. In 1869 he was elected A.R.A. and in 1871 he was appointed Slade Professor at University College, London, a post he retained until 1876. He notably introduced a French flavour into the academic system. From 1875-1881 he was Director and Principal of the National Art Training Schools in South Kensington. He was elected a member of the R.A. in 1876 and became Director of the National Gallery, London, in 1894 until 1904. He succeeded Millais as President of the Royal Academy in 1896, a post he held until 1918, was knighted in 1896 and was made a baronet in 1902.
Poynter, Edward John, Ten Lectures on Art, London, 1879; Records of the Arts Club, London; Bénézit, E., Dictionnaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Graveurs, 8 vols, Paris, 1956-61; Maas, Jeremy, The Victorian Art World in Photographs, London, 1984 ; Inglis, Alison, 'Edward John Poynter', The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy, http://www.groveart.com (accessed 22 February 2002).