This is clearly a consistent theory, and it is that of the Italian and even more of the French seventeenth century. There is nothing specifically English in it. But what is eminently English about Reynolds and his Discourses is the contrast between what he preached and what he did. History painting and the Grand Manner, he told the stu-dents, is what they ought to aim at, but he was a portrait painter most exclusively, and an extremely successful one.
Reynold's "Mrs Siddons as the Tragic
Muse": the Grand Manner TakenSeriously
For anyone coming to the painting with a fresh eye the first impression must surely be one of dignity and solem-nity. It is an impression created not only by the pose and bearing of the central figure herself, and her costume, but also by the attitude of her two shadowy attendants, by the arrangement of the figures, and by the colour. The colour must appear as one of the most remarkable features of the painting. To the casual glance the picture seems monochromatic. The dominant tone is a rich golden brown, interrupted only by the creamy areas of the face and arms and by the deep velvety shadows of the background. On closer examination a much greater variety in the colour is appar-ent, but the first impression remains valid for the painting as a unit.
The central figure sits on a thronelike chair. She does not look at the spectator but appearsan deep contemplation; her expression is one of melancholy musing. Her gestures aptly reinforce the meditative air of the head and also contribute to the regal quality of the whole figure. A great pendent cluster of pearls adorns the front of her dress. In the heavy, sweeping draperies that envelop the figure there are no frivolous elements of feminine costume to conflict with the initial effect of solemn grandeur.
In the background, dimly seen on either side of the throne, are two attendant figures. One, with lowered head and melancholy expression, holds a bloody dagger; the other, his features contorted into an expression of horror, grasps a cup. Surely these figures speak of violent events. Their presence adds a sinister impression to a picture already eavily charged with grave qualities.
At the time the portrait was painted, Sarah Siddons was in her late twenties, but she already.had a soli.d decade of acting experience behind her. She was born in 1755, the daughter of Roger Kemble, manager of an itinerant com-pany of actors. Most of her early acting experience was with her father's company touring through English provincial centres. Her reputation rose so quickly that in 1775, when she was only twenty, she was engaged by Garrick to perform at Drury Lane. But this early London adventure proved premature; she was unsuccessful and retired again to the provincial circuits, acting principally at Bath. She threw her full energies into building her repertory and perfecting her acting technique, with the result that her return to London as a tragic actress in the autumn of 1782, was one of the great sensations of theatre history. Almost overnight she found herself the unquestioned first lady of the British stage, a position she retained for thirty years. The leading intellectuals and statesmen of the day were among her most fervent admirers and were in constant attendance at her performance.
Among the intelligentsia who flocked to see the great actress and returned again and again was Sir Joshua Reynolds, the august president of the Royal Academy. He was at the time the most respected painter in England, and he also enjoyed a wide reputation as a theorist on art.
Reynolds moved with ease among the great men of his day. Mrs Siddons remarks in her memoirs: "...At his house were assembled all the good, the wise, the talented, the rank and fashion of the age."
The painting is in fact a brilliantly successful synthe-sis of images and ideas from a wide variety of sources.
The basic notion of representing Mrs Siddons in the guise of the Tragic Muse may well have been suggested to Reynolds by a poem honouring the actress and published early in 1783. The verses themselves are not distinguished, but the title and the poet's initial image of Mrs Siddons enthroned as Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, may have lodged in Reynolds's memory and given the initial direction to his thinking about the portrait.
It has long been recognized that in the basic organiza-tion of the picture Reynolds had Michelangelo's prophets and sybils of the Sistine ceiling in mind. Mrs Siddons's pose'recalls that of Isaiah, and of the two attendant figures the one on the left is very closely modelled on the simi-larly placed companion of the prophet Jeremiah.
Reynolds's attitude toward this sort of borrowing from the works of other artists may seem a little strange to us today. He thought that great works of art should serve as a school to the students at the Royal Academy: "He, who borrows an idea from an ancient, or even from a modern artist not his contemporary, and so accommodates his own work, that it makes a part of it, with no seam or joining appearing, can hardly be charged with plagiarism: poets practise this kind of borrowing, without reserve. But an artist should not be content with this only; he should enter into a competition with his original, and endeavour to improve what he is appropriating to his own work. Such imitation is ... a perpetual exercise of the mind, a continual invention." From this point of view "The Tragia Muse" is a perfect illustration of Reynolds;s advice to the student.
If the arrangement of the figures in the portrait of Mrs Siddons suggests Michelangelo, other aspects of the painting, particularly the colour, the heavy shadow effects, and the actual application of the paint, are totally unlike the work of Michelangelo and suggest instead the paintings of Rembrandt.
But the amazing thing is that the finished product is in no sense a pastiche. The disparate elements have all been transformed through Reynolds's own visual imagination and have emerged as a unit in which the relationship of all the parts to one another seems not only correct but inevitable. This in itself is an achievement commanding our admiration.
In "The Tragic Muse" Reynolds achieved an air of grandeur and dignity which he and his contemporaries regarded as a prime objective of art and which no other portrait of the day embodied so successfully.
5.3) George Romney (1734-1802)
Romney is best known to the general public by facile portraits of women and children and by his many studies of Lady Hamilton, whom he delighted to portray in various historical roles, these are not however his best works. His visit to Italy at a time when New Classical movement was gaming ground made a lasting impression on him and some of his portrait groups, e. g. "The Gower Children", 1776, are composed with classical statuary in mind, particularly in the treatment of the draperies. He painted a number of impressive male portraits., and some fashionable groups of great elegance, e. g. "Sir Cristopher and Lady Sykes", 1786. His output was large,,but he never exhibited at the Royal Academy.
Romney was of an imaginative, introspective, and nervous temperament. He was attracted to literary circles and William Hayley and William Cowper were among his friends. He had aspirations to literary subjects in the Grand Manner, and, painted for Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery. His sepia drawings, mostly designs for literary and historical subjects which he never carried put, were highly prized; there is a large collection of them in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
5.4) Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788)
When Gainsborough made his often-quoted remark about Reynolds, "Damn him, how various he is", he was glancing, we may suppose, at the peculiar skill by which his great rival ran the whole gamut of portrait-painting, from "mere heads" to the most elaborate poetic and allegorical fantasies. Gainsborough himself had no such variety, but painted his sitters, commonly, in their habit as they lived. Yet, in a larger sense, he was far more va-rious than Reynolds. He excelled in two distinct branches of the art, portraiture and landscape, and revealed an un-equalled success in combining the two -- that is, in adjusting the human figure to a background of natural scenery. Moreover, he excelled in conversation pieces, animal painting, seascapes, genre and even still life. Such was his peculiar variety. Gainsborough's personality was also more vivid and various than that of Sir Joshua. He was excitable, easily moved to wrath and as readily appeased, generous and friendly with all who loved music and animals and the open air. He had not Reynolds's gift of suffering fools gladly. Although he painted at court, he was not a courtly person, but preferred to associate with musicians, simple folk, and, on occasion, with cottagers. His most engaging pictures are those of persons with whom he was intimate or at ease. His grand sitters seem a little glacial, for all the perfection of the painter's technique, as though a pane of glass were between them and the artist.