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Portrait of Sarah Siddons as the Muse of Tragedy, Joshua Reynolds - Description of the Painting

02 April 2022
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Portrait of Sarah Siddons as the Muse of Tragedy - Joshua Reynolds. Canvas, oil. 236.2 x 146 cm


Sarah Kemble Siddons (1755–1831) was a British actress. She got famous owing to the successful role of Lady Macbeth, whose image performed by Siddons is considered among the best ones in the theatrical history. She also played Desdemona and Volumnia from Coriolanus. She stayed with the theater until 1818. There is a sculpture of the actress in the Westminster Abbey, serving as the evidence of her outstanding talent.

Lady Sarah is also famous for her portraits, with one of them created by Thomas Gainsborough and the other by Joshua Reynolds, who was a proponent of the Enlightenment. The artist painted the so-called ceremonial portrait, depicting the actress as the muse of Tragedy.

She is sitting on a throne placed on a cloud. There are mystical figures, namely Compassion and Horror – shown behind the throne. The figure of Compassion has its eyes closed, while Horror holds a chalice, looking agitated. Lady Sarah is depicted in a loose and natural pose. Her attire is beautiful: it is double, with the underneath dress made of light satin. The toe of her shoe is visible from under the sumptuous skirt.

The painting is made in yellow-brown tints. The whiteness of the heroine’s skin stands out against this background. Reynolds managed to convey the beauty of the actress's hands wonderfully. The expression of her face is thoughtful and dreamy.

While creating his portrait of the actress, Thomas Gainsborough grumbled (most probably in jest) that the beauty's nose had no end. Joshua Reynolds behaved as a genuine gentleman, not skimping on compliments. Having completed his portrait, he made a most gallant confession: "I did not miss the opportunity to use the honor of going to the descendants on the hem of your outfit," leaving his signature on the margin of Lady Siddons's skirt.

The value of the works by both Gainsborough and Reynolds is not only artistic: owing to these canvases, one can see what a woman who inspired no less talented men, did look like.
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