Sarah Siddons, Artists’ Muse
England may not have had much in the way of memorable new theater at the end of the 18th century, but it did claim an unusually memorable theatrical personality. Her name was Sarah Siddons, and the invocation of that name circa 1800 was akin to saying the name of the most celebrated movie star today.
The British actress is mostly known to general audiences now as a footnote from Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s classic 1950 movie, “All About Eve,” in which her likeness adorned an eponymous Broadway award. To art audiences, though, she’s also familiar as the subject of the formidable Grand Manner portrait “Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse,” painted in 1784 by Sir Joshua Reynolds and a prized possession of the Huntington Library and Art Collections in San Marino for more than 70 years.
An engaging pair of small exhibitions are newly opened at the Huntington and the J. Paul Getty Museum, and they do double duty. They examine Siddons and her remarkable career, while putting at the center Reynolds’ famous portrait, painted when he was 61 and she was 29.
The life-size painting of the larger-than-life actress cemented her public persona once and for all. In the aftermath of the actress’ 1782 triumph on the London stage, so powerful was the Reynolds painting’s pull that every other graphic depiction of Siddons--and there were many, in what may add up to the first major publicity archive of an actress--is lit by its reflected glow.
Almost 8 feet high and 5 feet wide, Reynolds’ portrait casts Siddons as a great, brooding pile of enthroned velvet and brocade. A regal diadem crowns her swept-back hair, knotted strands of immense pearls are clustered at her bosom. The sensual range of mostly golden brown tones clad a young, modern celebrity with a rich patina of age, creating a queenly figure who is somewhere between gilded and bronzed.
Dramatic contrast is created by the porcelain skin of her face and arms emerging from billowy white cloth, while a glimpse of regal foot is shown resting upon an elegant stool, itself supported by darkly roiling clouds. Siddons seems a flash of lightning amid darkening skies.
Reynolds has portrayed the actress as a powerful goddess hovering on Olympian heights, not unlike the way Ingres would soon portray Emperor Napoleon as Zeus-on-Earth. The chief difference is one of mood. Rather than a brute and immovable force, like Napoleon, Siddons is a picture of regally resigned endurance. One arm is slung wearily over the side of her throne; the other rests on an elbow, as if in casual anticipation of swatting pesky flies (or enemies).
At her right shoulder hovers a personification of downcast pity; at her left, one of open-mouthed horror. Pity and horror mediate her own heavy-browed face, which wears a living mask of tragedy.
Reynolds, who was the ambitious president of the Royal Academy, has fashioned Siddons into an amazing emblem--and not just an emblem of an abstract ideal of tragedy. Rather, the weary regal goddess verges on being Britannia herself, weathering the passing storm of the strained years following the American Revolution and the first disconcerting fissure in England’s global empire.
At the Getty, Reynolds’ portrait is installed in a room with nine other pictures of the actress. They include a weak copy of the masterwork by an unknown studio assistant, while an anteroom displays conservation analysis of the two pictures that offers a concise lesson in some of the differences between a supremely gifted artist such as Reynolds and a mediocre one such as the copyist.
Also, there are two portraits by Thomas Lawrence, who first met Siddons when he was 13 and later went on to disastrous love affairs with two of her daughters; two by George Romney, both fluid oil sketches; one by the American Gilbert Stuart; one by the always peculiar Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (naturally, he chose to portray Siddons in a ghostly scene from “Macbeth”); one by the little-known and rather pedestrian William Beechey, official portrait painter to Queen Charlotte; and, finally, a magnificent, three-quarter-length depiction by Thomas Gainsborough, whose fizzy brushwork and glittery color whip her image into that of a distinguished aristocrat.
Siddons was not landed gentry, though, but an aristocrat of the stage--a self-made woman. (For a contemporary gloss on this 18th century phenomenon, see the Eleanor Antin retrospective currently at the L.A. County Museum of Art.) Her valorization by the aristocratic trappings of Grand Manner portraiture quietly suggests an emphatic transition in British social life. Into a realm previously reserved for aristocracy, a concept of meritocracy is being inserted.
That meritocracy includes not just the actress, who hailed from a provincial town, fell flat on her first try at the London big-time, then returned six years later to perform three barn-burning roles in one brief but triumphant fall season that launched a 30-year career. It also includes artists.
The bravura brushwork, showy color, dramatic lighting effects and learned historical references characteristic of artists such as Reynolds and Gainsborough are themselves histrionic performances, acted on the public stage of painting. Both artist and subject are present in the image of “Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse,” in which the president of the Royal Academy brilliantly fuses himself with the actress in portraying a regal and emotional emblem of suffering virtue.
At the Huntington, 38 prints and drawings, two small paintings, several printed books, some sketchbooks and ephemera put Siddons’ story into a larger context. (Impressively, nearly half the work on view comes from the Huntington’s own collection.) Though small, this part of the show is divided into seven sections on topics ranging from satires of the famous actress to the extent of her posthumous fame. The dazzler is Reynolds’ dramatic self-portrait sketch, improvised late one night as a study for the open-mouthed figure of Horror in his Siddons portrait.
Huntington research associate Robyn Asleson deftly organized both exhibitions and oversaw the useful book that accompanies them, with assistance from associates at the Getty. With one medium-size show split into two small ones on opposite sides of the city, though, the weak link in an otherwise engrossing presentation is that you have to brave three freeways and 27 miles of traffic to see the whole thing. It’s good to see this cooperative venture between major institutions, but its public effectiveness is lessened by what comes across as an assertion of institutional egos.
* J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, (310) 440-7300; and Huntington Library and Art Collections, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, (626) 405-2141; both through Sept. 19. Closed Mondays.