- Searching for Sarah Siddons: Portraiture and the Historiography of Fame
Sarah Siddons (1755–1831), the leading tragédienne of the Georgian era, has reclaimed center stage in Los Angeles. She is the focus of concurrent exhibitions at the Getty and the Huntington and the subject of a new play by Frank Dwyer. The Siddons events are staged in counterpoint to another exhibition at the Getty, Nadar/Warhol: Paris/New York (20 July–10 October 1999), which considers modern celebrity through the photographic portraits of Nadar and Warhol. If fame in the late twentieth century is promoted by paparazzi, tabloids, and the mass media, how was celebrity constructed and disseminated before photography in the age of Garrick and Siddons? The exhibitions provide an opportunity to ponder the aesthetic conventions and expressive parameters of portraiture, the links between painting and the stage, and the role of visual imagery in shaping and perpetuating the Siddons legend. The Siddons events also address the problem of recuperating and representing the past and the conflation of Siddons’s public and private roles and raise broader issues about feminine representation, the parallels between biography and portraiture, the commercialization of culture and aesthetic hierarchies, and the historiography of fame. [End Page 281]
Although acting is an ephemeral art that disappears when the curtain comes down, Siddons’s fame has endured. She is perhaps best remembered for her groundbreaking interpretation of Lady Macbeth, which exerted a powerful influence on Romantic critics and later actresses, notably Ellen Terry. In Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950), Anne Baxter wins the Sarah Siddons award for her achievement as an actress, and in 1957 Betty Davis restaged Reynolds’s Tragic Muse as a tableau vivant. How did Siddons collaborate with her portraitists to project her image and engrave it in the collective imagination? The short answer is “Reynolds.” Two centuries later, Reynolds’s Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse (1784, The Huntington) remains the quintessential representation of Siddons, one in which she is apotheosized as Tragedy in an allegorical portrait indebted to Michelangelo as well as Rembrandt.
The two versions of Reynolds’s Tragic Muse (Huntington and Dulwich Art Gallery) form the centerpiece of the small exhibition of ten portraits on view at the Getty. Mark Leonard, Conservator of Paintings at the Getty, first proposed exhibiting the two versions together in 1995. Technical analysis of the pictures at the Getty Conservation Institute has convinced Leonard and Shelley Bennett, Curator of British and European Art at the Huntington, that the Huntington picture is entirely from the hand of Reynolds, whereas the 1789 Dulwich version, although signed by Reynolds, is a studio replica. The technical documentation, including composite x-rays and close-up comparisons of details, provides an illuminating lesson in comparative connoisseurship. The Huntington picture, painted in a hodgepodge of different techniques, was extensively reworked by Reynolds, who changed the color of Siddons’s dress, eliminated the putto in the foreground, and repainted the right attendant to represent terror (rather than melancholy), reinforcing the iconography of Tragedy. The two versions (facing each other like mirror images) also highlight the idiosyncrasies of Reynolds’s painting technique and the conservation issues they pose.
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Surrounding the Tragic Muse...