Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sir Joshua Reynolds - Portrait of Mrs Siddon as the Tragic Muse

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse,1784
(The Huntington Library, Pasadena, California)

In France, the Director-General of Buildings under Louis XVI, Count Charles-Claude d'Angiviller, as soon as he took office in 1774, issued a letter to the director of the Academy declaring that from the governments perspective, art's highest aim should be to promote virtue and to combat vice.  In order to achieve this he proposed to commission historical paintings with a strong moral impact.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, across the channel in England was preaching the same thing and calling for a return to a great style of painting that was simple, natural and beautiful in the style of the classical works of art.  Reynolds, one of the founders and the first president of the Royal Academy was a great portraitist and the leading figure in trying to elevate the art of portraiture to a grand style similar to history paintings.  In England, unlike France, the majority of works commissioned were from private patrons instead of the government, making the production of large-scale history paintings difficult.  Artists usually would attempt these to stand out at the academy exhibitions but otherwise concentrated on painting portraits which was always in demand.   His Portrait of Mrs Siddons as a Tragic Muse is a wonderful incorporation of the ideas for a grand style in portraiture.1

Mrs Siddons was at the height of her career when Reynolds painted this portrait.  In Greek Mythology every art had a corresponding muse or a goddess that inspired the artist and Reynolds must have found representing Mrs Siddons as the tragic muse, most appropriate.  There is a story that when she came into his studio Reynolds took her hand and led her to the chair uttering the words "Ascend your undisputed throne; bestow on me some idea of the tragic muse."  At which time she immediately sat and assumed the attitude in which she was painted.2  The pose is reminiscent of Michelangelo's depiction of one of the prophets on the Sistine Chapel.

Reynolds has depicted a fair Mrs Siddons, as a luminescent muse, amongst the dark shadows where the allegorical figures of Terror and Pity hover behind her. He has elevated her station by placing her on such a large scale painting, sitting on a throne with a little stool underneath her feet. The way one arm rests and the other is held with no effort adds to the sense of nobility. The scale of the painting and the  subject matter of  an allegory has made this painting almost on par with history painting.

Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Mrs Sarah Siddons, 1785
(The National Gallery, London)
Reynolds' innovations becomes even more pronounced when comparing this painting with Thomas Gainsborough Portrait of Mrs. Sarah Siddons painted in 1785.  In the Gainsborough portrait the influence of rococo is very apparent in the soft brush strokes and the finely worked textures and fabrics of her clothing. This is the perfect likeness of a well-bred woman with an averted gaze sitting with her powdered hair, in silks and furs placed at the very front of the canvas.    While Gainsborough displays his sensuous brushwork in this painting in the rococo style, Reynolds, by concentrating on what he calls a "nobleness of conception"  and "dignifying his figure with intellectual grandeur," has created a portrait akin to the grand history paintings that were beginning to be produced in France.  

1 Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, Nineteenth-Century European Art, second edition, Pearson Education 2006
2  Estelle May Hurll, Sir Joshua Reynolds, A Collection of Fifteen Pictures and a Portrait of the Painter with Introduction and Interpretation, Project Gutenberg E-Book, 31

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