A Passion for Performance: Sarah Siddons and Her Portraitists
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A Passion for Performance features three lively essays--by Robyn Asleson, Shelley Bennett, Mark Leonard, and Shearer West--that explore the life and career of the English actress Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), who was renowned for her majestic beauty and impassioned performances. This lavish volume also illuminates her relationships with a number of artists who portrayed her, bringing together fifty-six portraits of Siddons including works by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, George Romney, Thomas Lawrence, and Gilbert Stuart, along with a chronology of the actress' life.
question the extent to which this regal behavior in private life was merely an extension of her performance, they more frequently conceded that she had the natural air of someone of superior breeding.83 A comparison of Gilbert Stuart's (fig. 23) and Thomas Gainsborough's (fig. 24) portraits of Siddons reveals the latter's particular emphasis on Siddons's persona as a fine lady. Although both were painted in 1785* Stuart portrays the girlish darling of the sensibility craze with a soft and
negative one, constituting his final, bitter estrangement from the institution that his chief competitor dominated. Irritated by the unfavorable position in which his painting The Three Eldest Princesses (fig. 34) was to be hung, Gainsborough demanded the immediate return of all his submissions and made good on a prior threat never to exhibit at the Academy again.108 The painting obviously continued to weigh on Gainsborough's mind when he undertook the portrait of Siddons, for he lifted her
Northcote observed, "if you had not seen Mrs. Siddons, you could have no idea of her. . . . She was like a preternatural being descended to the earth" ("Mr. Northcote's Conversations" in 4. 56. 7- ister, 5 May 1785, 2; "Mrs. Siddons," Oracle, 24 March 1792, 3- On the failure of sculptors, painters, and poets to convey to posterity Siddons's awesome pres13. ence, see Ballantyne, Characters by Mrs. Siddons, 40• Siddons to George Siddons, Westbourne Farm, Paddington, 6 September 1808, letter II,
feathered hat and ponderous corkscrew curls, in a drawing engraved and published by R. Blyth in 1780 (National Portrait Gallery Archives, London). 57- The subject matter is identified in William Blake's letter to William Hayley of 23 February 1804 (Add. (March 1783): 192; Public Advertiser, 22 April 1783, 3; 2: 7^5- Sir Walter Scott drew a similar conclusion about Siddons's limitations in comparison with 52. 93 1686, Bodleian Library, Oxford). D.C.: National Portrait Gallery, 1979). 71.
British and American Women in the Theater, 1660 — 1830 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1991), 48-67. 112,. "Royal Academy," Times, 28 April 1804? 2- See also Boaden, Memoirs of Mrs. Inchbald, I: 342113. Gower, Lawrence, 88. 114. See Shearer West, "Thomas Lawrence's 'HalfHistory' Portraits and the Politics of Theatre," Art History 14 (June 1991): 225~49115. Kenneth Garlick, Sir Thomas Lawrence: Portraits of an Age, I'/QO—lSgo (Alexandria, Va.: Art Services International, 1993), 134. 116. Entry of