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Sir Joshua Reynolds glorifies Sarah Siddons

THIS week Home Forum devotes four pages to a series called ``Artists on Artists.'' The pages include essays, artworks, and poems. These latter serve as tributes to artists - Auguste Renoir, Mary Cassatt, Albrecht D"urer, Amedeo Modigliani, Franz Liszt - who have inspired the poets to more profound thinking about the nature of art. The essays explore several aspects of art and culture. They deal with the way painters have rendered artists - actresses in this case - over the past 200 years.

Today, Christopher Andreae discusses the depiction by the British portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds of the tragedian Sarah Siddons as ``the Tragic Muse,'' a work done in the late 1700s before the invention of photography.

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On Tuesday Mr. Andreae analyzes the French satirist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's portraits of 1890s Montmartre cabaret artists. Done after photography achieved the capacity to render physiologically faithful portraits, these paintings explore psychological elements and probe ``beauty in ugliness.''

On Wednesday our writer looks at portraits done by the American Andy Warhol, whose original training was in advertising art. At the time Warhol worked, photography was a commonplace of both advertising and modern life. No longer used merely to achieve ``faithful likenesses,'' photography now played a significant role in people's perceptions both of actuality and fantasy.

On Thursday Richard C. Bachus looks at a new art form: music videos. Using rock artist/star Elton John's song ``Candle in the Wind'' as an example, he shows how one music video portrays Marilyn Monroe - and in doing so both redirects and helps perpetuate her legend.

By the time music videos emerge, still photography has been superseded by film - and by filmed sequences pieced together by sophisticated editing techniques.

As a result, the series is not just about portraiture and the changes it has undergone in the past two centuries. The series also chronicles the arrival of mass-culture and the way that advertising and promotion strategies have formed - some might say ``deformed'' - our art and culture.

WHEN the ``Queen of Tragedy,'' English actress Sarah Siddons, ruled the London stage in the last two decades of the 18th century - and by all accounts, rule she did - the power of her performances regularly caused ladies in the audience to faint and gentlemen to weep.

Her success was astonishing, and Drury Lane Theatre, which had been going through bad times, was once again packed to capacity. Tragedy became fashionable, and the older comedy stars of the time, like Mrs. Abington (who was by then in her 40s), were eclipsed.

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The 18th-century British loved to make their stage performers into idols. By the latter part of the century, the notion of outstanding actors and actresses as popular icons - and therefore the frequent subjects of painted and printed portraits - was well established.

The slightly earlier actor David Garrick (who had, at the end of his career, been the first manager to bring Siddons to London, in 1775-76, though she was not then a success) had been portrayed more than 450 times in all kinds of media. ``And these,'' writes Kalman A. Burnim, ``do not include at least 30 sculptures, woodcarvings, porcelains and medallions in plaster.''

Paintings were sometimes copied, and prints were made after them - engravings, etchings, mezzotints - which enormously multiplied the availability of their images. You could say that the 18th century was, in such practices, already begging for the invention of photography, and in fact the first use of the camera was not many decades away.

Joshua Reynolds was a leading portrait painter of the period. Not only did he paint actors, he also enjoyed their company. He painted his friend Garrick numerous times.

As for Mrs. Abington, who had risen from poverty to become an enormously applauded comic actress and leader of fashion, Reynolds painted her at least three times.

The picture of her as ``Miss Prue,'' the rustic girl in Congreve's restoration play ``Love for Love,'' is particularly charming.

Mrs. Abington, in close-up, is dressed in the very latest fashion and leans over the back of a Chippendale-type chair as casually as a man. ``Such manners were considered improper for a lady,'' writes Nicholas Penny. The thumb held to her lips was also commonplace, and could only be justified by her being an actress in character.

Here, then, is a portrait of woman-as-actress - a kind of prototype for the proliferation of matinee-idols and pinups which one-and-a-half centuries later would flood the world through the medium of photography.

While of the same genre, Reynolds's lofty portrait of ``Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse,'' could hardly be more different.

At a time when the aspirations of the theater and the aspirations of visual art were as close as they have ever been, Reynolds hit on an image that came near to his actual ambitions as an artist. These ambitions - to be a serious ``painter of history,'' which he proclaimed the highest form of art - were frequently frustrated by the compromises demanded of him as a mere portraitist. Sometimes he managed to elevate his portraits to the higher realm of allegory or myth (which came pretty much under the heading of history) by painting his fashionable sitters ``as'' some great figure - Hebe or Diana or Euphrosyne.

Actors and actresses offered Reynolds a special opportunity to exploit this fashion for assuming characters and fancy dress. With Mrs. Siddons he found someone particularly in his element. By all accounts she was indeed a profoundly effective tragedienne.

Her reputation has persisted down the years. She still stands as an unattainable measure for tragic actresses - something that Reynolds's heroic painting has doubtless helped to foster.

Not all of her contemporaries were instantly persuaded by her magic, however. A balanced assessment, for instance, can be found in the words of Fanny Burney, the novelist. She started by not liking Mrs. Siddons at all.

But by 1788 she was appraising her with these words: ``I do think that Mrs. Siddons for Vigour of Action, pathetic Tone of Voice, and a sort of Radiance which comes round her in Scenes where strong heroic Virtues are displayed, never had her equal.''

Clearly Reynolds aimed to portray her as unequaled. His achievement of this in paint is something that photography, had it been available then, could scarcely have attempted. He conceived her as a figure in the pantheon of sublime art. His style lifted her above mere actress-hood.

Amusingly, a picture that was self-evidently designed as the promotion of a myth has accrued a variety of stories concerning its genesis.

In Mrs. Siddons's version, Reynolds ``took me by the hand, saying, `Ascend your undisputed throne, and graciously bestow upon me some grand Idea of the Tragick Muse.' I walked up the steps and seated myself instantly in the attitude in which She now appears.''

She added that he signed his name on her dress saying, ``...I have resolved to go down to posterity upon the hem of your garment.''

Another, surely more appealing, story has Mrs. S, almost late for the sitting, throwing herself out of breath into an armchair and then lifting her head to ask how the painter wanted her to sit. ``Just as you are,'' replied Sir Joshua.

Much more to the point, and suggesting that Reynolds actually positioned her exactly the way he wanted her, is the fact that her pose is based on Michelangelo's figure of the prophet Isaiah from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Reynolds had boundless admiration for Michelangelo. His reuse of his work would have been a conscious tribute.

The portrait was immensely popular. Copies of it were painted, once by Reynolds himself (perhaps with the help of assistants), and Francis Haward did a stipple engraving of it. The painting was extravagantly praised by contemporaries and admired by other artists.

Although extremely productive as a portrait painter, Reynolds was not a hack. If he didn't often achieve his ideals as a true history painter, he was certainly considered during his lifetime an artist of outstanding merit.

His picture of ``Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse'' was seen as a remarkable work of art. And yet it seems that its original purpose was not art as such. Evidence points to the fact that it was commissioned not by the actress herself but by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, playwright, in his capacity as manager of the theater at Drury Lane. Presumably he wanted it done as an advertisement.

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