Wednesday, July 29, 2009

the tragic muse (Sarah Kemble Siddons) by Reynolds

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse, 1789
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.

The allegorical portrait

Allegorical portraits allowed artists to portray women in roles outside their normally restricted occupations, as well as to take on the attributes of the Goddess or other figure represented. Artists could indulge in a greater degree of idealisation and choose settings and props suitable for the situation. In doing this they moved the portrait genre closer to that of history painting.

While allegory flattered the status of the upper classes, it could also be used to present images of women like actresses, who were less favoured by wealth or breeding, and help to make them socially acceptable. Sarah Siddons, England’s leading tragic actress, confessed herself ‘an ambitious candidate for fame’, anxious to meet ‘all the good, the wise, the talented, the rank and fashion of the age’ at Reynolds’s parties. Rather than portray Sarah Siddons in one of her stage roles, Reynolds pulls out all the stops in casting her as The Tragic Muse. Melpomene was one of nine Muses, daughters of Jupiter, who were the goddesses of creative inspiration in poetry, song and the other arts.
Siddons is seated on an enormous throne, supported by stormy clouds and set against an ominously dark sky, her sumptuous dress spread out to command the stage. Beside her are two figures associated with Tragedy: on the right ‘Terror’, for which Reynolds used a drawing of his own face, and on the left ‘Pity’. While Siddon’s idealised features gaze rapturously upwards in a somewhat aloof manner, there is a sense in which her image ‘speaks’ to us: her raised hand, suggestive of oratory, rests against the cup of ‘Terror’, while the other hand falls away beside the dagger of ‘Pity’.
(This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department publication.)
Compare this to Stuart's portrait of Sarah Siddons (entry July 23), and one has a glimpse into a striking metamorphosis.
For more on Sir Joshua Reynolds and his portrait by GS see entries from March 10/11 2009. Stuart was only 29 at the time he painted the portrait of Reynolds.


Rouchswalwe said...

Truly terrific! The balloony sleeves and her two plaits.

Maureen said...

Hard to say which more dramatic, the description or the painting itself.

Site Meter