Friday, August 29, 2014

Reynolds, Siddons and the Tragic Muse

by Catherine Curzon

Last month, I wrote of the remarkable celebrity of Sarah Siddons, the first lady of the Georgian stage who was so celebrated for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth. Among her fans was Sir Joshua Reynolds, the near legendary Georgian artist, and he memorialised Mrs Siddons forever in his remarkable 1784 work, Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse.

This portrait has been an inspiration to me for many years and a print hangs in pride of place in my sitting room, where it often attracts compliments. When I look at this painting I see a remarkable piece of theatre, and one that rightly confirmed the actress's status as a superstar of the tragic stage, preserving Mrs Siddons forever as a figure of graceful authority, the living embodiment of Melpomene, the muse of tragedy.


Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse by Joshua Reynolds, 1784

When Mrs Siddons arrived to sit for the portrait, Reynolds told his adored subject, "Ascend upon your undisputed throne, and graciously bestow upon me some great idea of the Tragic Muse". Mrs Siddons accordingly draped herself in a somewhat monarchical fashion on her throne and in doing so appeared to assume the pose adopted by Isaiah on the Sistine Ceiling. However, she claimed that this was nothing but coincidence, having chosen this position when she found the initial pose requested by Reynolds to be too uncomfortable to hold. Whether this is true we cannot know but Mrs Siddons was well aware of the power of celebrity and perhaps was giving her own near-mythical reputation a helping hand!

Regardless of the thought behind it, the pose is unmistakably graceful and in her opulent gown and pearls, the actress's noble bearing is evident in every inch of the canvas. For all of the grace and nobility, though, her expression is troubled, and the painting is one that shows a woman in some conflict. Emerging from the shadows behind her throne are the figures of Aristotle's Pity and Fear. Recalling her role as Lady Macbeth they clutch a dagger and a chalice and Fear's features were modelled on Reynolds' own grimace, which he painted from reflection.

This painting is remarkable in its subtle use of light and shadow. The colours are subdued yet striking, and the arms and face of the sitter draw the eye with their vibrancy. Despite or perhaps because of the simple and muted palette, the painting draws and holds the attention; in fact, the dress was initially intended to be blue but Reynolds repainted it in the brown and gold we see today. This blends the primary figure of the actress into the background even as she is kept apart by the brightness of her features versus the misty figures that flank her, a luminous figure and one that demands attention.

The painting was an utter sensation when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1784 and Reynolds placed a mind-boggling one thousand guinea price tag on the canvas. To this day it is regarded as one of the finest works of 18th century painting and has played a part in the enduring reputation of both actress and artist. It is perhaps fitting, then, that Reynolds signed the portrait across the bottom of Mrs Siddons's dress and told her, "I have resolved to go down to posterity on the hem of your garment." That signature is no longer visible but this magnificent painting remains, as remarkable now as it was then.


Sources

Perry, Gill, Spectacular Flirtations: Viewing the Actress in British Art and Theatre 1768-1820, (Yale University Press, 2007)
Perry, Gill and Roach, Joseph, The First Actresses: Nell Gwynn to Sarah Siddons, (National Portait Gallery, 2011)
Postle, Martin, Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity, (Tate Publishing, 2005)

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Glorious Georgian ginbag, gossip and gadabout Catherine Curzon, aka Madame Gilflurt, is the author of A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life. When not setting quill to paper, she can usually be found gadding about the tea shops and gaming rooms of the capital or hosting intimate gatherings at her tottering abode. In addition to her blog and Facebook, Madame G is also quite the charmer on Twitter. Her first book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now, and she is also working on An Evening with Jane Austen, starring Adrian Lukis and Caroline Langrishe.

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