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  • Picturing Tragedy: Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse Revisited*
  • Heather McPherson (bio)

She was regarded less with admiration than with wonder, as if a being of a superior order had dropped from another sphere to awe the world with the majesty of her appearance. She raised Tragedy to the skies, or brought it down from thence. It was something above nature. We can conceive of nothing grander . . . Power was seated on her brow, passion emanated from her breast as from a shrine. She was Tragedy personified.

William Hazlitt, “Mrs. Siddons” (Examiner, 16 June 1816)

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Figure 1.

Joshua Reynolds, Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse, 1784. Huntington Library and Art Collections, San Marino.

This essay reconsiders Sir Joshua Reynolds’s majestic depiction of Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse (1784; fig. 1), the most celebrated representation of the awe-inspiring actress Hazlitt hailed as the personification of tragedy. 1 In particular, it seeks to recontextualize Reynolds’s painting within the intersecting spheres of late-eighteenth-century visual and theatrical culture in order to enhance our understanding of the complex reciprocal relationship between portraiture and the stage in Georgian England and the ways in which aesthetics, ideology, and commerce overlapped. Reynolds’s exceptional artistic and theatrical icon is situated at the crossroads of historical portraiture and theatrical performance, which faced many of the same challenges in the representation of historical character and the delineation of the human passions. Moreover, just as Mrs. Siddons towered above ordinary players, contemporaries regarded the Tragic Muse as more than an ordinary portrait. For example, the Public Advertiser praised Reynolds’s portrait of Mrs. Siddons as a history painting [End Page 401] “most gloriously splendid in composition, outline, and effect.” 2 It was appropriate that the sublime Siddons, who personified Tragedy for her contemporaries, should be immortalized as the Tragic Muse in a picture widely saluted as the ne plus ultra of Reynolds’s artistic endeavors. 3

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Figure 2.

Composite x-ray of Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse. Huntington Library and Art Collections, San Marino.

A reconsideration of Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse is timely because new technical evidence has recently come to light, which demonstrates that Reynolds reworked the picture substantially and modified the iconographic scheme during the painting process. 4 The compositional changes can be seen in the composite x-ray (fig. 2). The principal modifications include the elimination of a putto presenting a scroll, visible at the lower left, and alterations in both the pose and expression of the attendant at the upper right, who was initially depicted in the traditional pose of melancholy, his tilted, helmeted head resting on his left arm, recalling Michelangelo’s brooding depiction of Lorenzo de Medici. Mrs. Siddons’s pose and attitude, however, were not modified. I shall return to the conflation of tragedy and melancholy and the aesthetic and iconographic significance of Reynolds’s compositional changes in the concluding section of the essay.

Reynolds’s reworking of the canvas is corroborated by contemporary eyewitnesses such as Gilbert Stuart, who admired the Tragic Muse in progress in Reynolds’s studio, but was disappointed when he returned at Sir Joshua’s invitation to view the finished picture. When Reynolds inquired if he had not improved it, Stuart, supposedly blurted out, “It could not have been improved—why did you not take another canvas?” 5 Although Stuart’s self-aggrandizing account is somewhat suspect, the fact remains that Reynolds did modify his depiction of Mrs. Siddons. The anonymous critic for the St. James’s Chronicle, who also viewed the picture in progress, concurred that Reynolds had altered his original conception and not for the better. In his review of the 1784 Royal Academy exhibition, he faulted Reynolds for spoiling his canvas through attempted corrections and contended that the finished picture lacked sublimity.

This picture last year, for we then had the pleasure of seeing it, gave some intimation and hopes of sublimity. Sir Joshua, it seems, was not satisfied with his first thoughts; and by endeavouring to correct them we think he has lost considerably of their spirit and energy. It is not a...

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pp. 401-430
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