The allegorical portrait
Allegorical portraits allowed artists to portray women in roles outside their normally restricted occupations, as well as to take on the attributes of the Goddess or other figure represented. Artists could indulge in a greater degree of idealisation and choose settings and props suitable for the situation. In doing this they moved the portrait genre closer to that of history painting.
While allegory flattered the status of the upper classes, it could also be used to present images of women like actresses, who were less favoured by wealth or breeding, and help to make them socially acceptable. Sarah Siddons, England’s leading tragic actress, confessed herself ‘an ambitious candidate for fame’, anxious to meet ‘all the good, the wise, the talented, the rank and fashion of the age’ at Reynolds’s parties.
Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA, Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse, 1789. Oil on canvas, 239.7 x 147.6 cm. By Permission of the Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.
Rather than portray Sarah Siddons in one of her stage roles, Reynolds pulls out all the stops in casting her as The Tragic Muse. Melpomene was one of nine Muses, daughters of Jupiter, who were the goddesses of creative inspiration in poetry, song and the other arts. In her memoirs, Siddons described how she naturally assumed the pose, but Reynolds use of earlier models like Domenichino’s, (1581–1641) St John the Evangelist or Michelangelo’s, (1475–1564) Isiah, on the Sistine ceiling, suggest that this is unreliable.
Siddons is seated on an enormous throne, supported by stormy clouds and set against an ominously dark sky, her sumptuous dress spread out to command the stage. Beside her are two figures associated with Tragedy: on the right ‘Terror’, for which Reynolds used a drawing of his own face, and on the left ‘Pity’. While Siddon’s idealised features gaze rapturously upwards in a somewhat aloof manner, there is a sense in which her image ‘speaks’ to us: her raised hand, suggestive of oratory, rests against the cup of ‘Terror’, while the other hand falls away beside the dagger of ‘Pity’. Thus in an intellectual sense the actress’s body becomes the conduit for the cathartic experience that tragedy should give us.
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This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department publication
Citizens And Kings: An Introduction to the Exhibition (0.8 MB)