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David Garrick Between Tragedy and Comedy

David Garrick Between Tragedy and Comedy
Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy, 1760-61 at Waddesdon Manor.jpg
ArtistJoshua Reynolds
Year1761 (1761)
MovementRococo, Neoclassical
SubjectMelpomene, David Garrick, Thalia
LocationWaddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire

David Garrick Between Tragedy and Comedy is a 1761 painting by the English painter Joshua Reynolds, depicting the actor and playwright David Garrick caught between the Muses of Tragedy and Comedy. It is regarded as one of Reynolds's most studied and well-known paintings, and is now in the collection of Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire.[1].


Reynolds has drawn a large picture of three figures to the knees, the thought taken by Garrick from the judgment of Hercules. It represents Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy. The former exhorts him to follow her exalted vocation, but Comedy drags him away, and he seems to yield willingly, though endeavouring to excuse himself, and pleading that he is forced. Tragedy is a good antique figure, but wants more dignity in the expression of her face. Comedy is a beautiful and winning girl–but Garrick's face is distorted, and burlesque. Lord Halifax has given him £300 for it!

Horace Walpole[2]:259–261

The art historian Horace Walpole provided the earliest known description of David Garrick Between Tragedy and Comedy. Walpole also recorded that George Montagu-Dunk, 2nd Earl of Halifax, bought the painting for £300, though it is unclear if this ever actually occurred.[3][2]:261

David Garrick stands in the centre of the painting wearing an Anthony van Dyck costume, against a rural landscape with a field and woodland.[4]:283 He stands between the Muse of Comedy, known as Thalia, and the Muse of Tragedy, known as Melpomene.[5]:138 He appears conflicted and hesitates between them,[4]:283 starting to transform from a tragic playwright into a comedian.[5]:140 Tragedy grabs Garrick's wrist with one hand and raises her other hand. Comedy is framed by a field and sky as she pulls on Garrick's arm.[4]:283 The painting has motifs similar to 18th-century theatrical frontispieces depicting the Muses of Tragedy and Comedy: the Muse of Tragedy has a dagger and raises one arm, and the Muse of Comedy holds a mask in her left hand.[5]:140

The differences between the two Muses are both formal and iconographic.[3] Comedy is painted in the rococo style,[4]:288 reminiscent of the work of Antonio da Correggio.[3] Tragedy is drawn in the neoclassical style,[4]:288 after the style of Guido Reni.[1] The painting employs elements of Augustan imagery, with its clothing, light, and shadow.[4]:294 Comedy has slightly tousled fair hair, resembling the bacchante drawn by Peter Paul Rubens. She wears washed-out mauve clothing.[2]:280 Tragedy wears a strong blue dress, with her head and arms covered as if in mourning.[3] Comedy smiles at the viewer, while Tragedy looks sternly at Garrick.[5]:138 Comedy is in dappled light, while Tragedy is strongly lit from above, with a dark background. The side of Garrick's face towards Comedy is smiling and illuminated, while other side is in shadows as he looks worriedly at Tragedy.[4]:296

Art historians often compare the painting to a scene in Greek mythology in which the god Hercules has to choose between Virtue and Pleasure. Reynolds' painting parodied this scene in that, whereas Hercules ultimately chooses the more modestly dressed Virtue, Garrick starts to succumb to the more immodestly dressed muse of Comedy.[5]:140–2 It also differs from traditional compositions of this scene, which generally feature detached full-length figures.[2]:269



David Garrick was famous as both a tragedian and comedian, and his earliest known association with the Muses of Tragedy and Comedy was in a 1747 poem by William Whitehead. In 1761, the same year Reynolds finished his painting of Garrick, a pamphlet with the signatures of the Muses of Comedy and Tragedy praised Garrick's theatrical achievements.[5]:140 The historian David Mannings has suggested that the painting's composition was inspired by Guido Reni's Lot and his Daughters Leaving Sodom.[2]:272–4

The painting follows instructions outlined in Notion of the Historical Draught of Hercules by Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, which used the Choice of Hercules as an example of educational and moral art.[4]:286–7 The painting shows Reynolds moving away from strict portraiture, symbolized by Tragedy, to more witty iconography, symbolized by Comedy.[5]:142–3

The painting and its prints

Reynolds made this painting mainly in 1760–1761,[3] around the same time he was working on a portrait of Laurence Sterne.[5]:138 Edward Edwards called it Reynolds's "first attempt in historical composition".[2]:262 The painting had a mixed reception when it was first published, with some arguing it showed Reynolds' painting skills, while others disagreed.[6]

Edward Fisher created a mezzotint for the painting in 1762 before he exhibited it in May 1762[7] at the Society of Artists in 1762 as Mr. Garrick, between two muses of tragedy and comedy.[6] Fisher published his mezzotint in November 1762,[7] having the inscription "Reddere personae scit convenientia cuique", meaning "he knows how to give to each what is appropriate".[6] In 1764, Reynolds requested copies of this print to give to his admirers.[7] The print was copied and pirated, producing at least fourteen different mezzotints.[5]:143–4 One of these prints, which was sold in France in 1765, had the inscription L'Homme entre le Vice et la Vertu.[4]:287


Distracted boyfriend meme inspired by a print of David Garrick Between Tragedy and Comedy

Garrick's 1775 play The Theatrical Candidates alludes to the painting when the two main characters Tragedy and Comedy enter into a dispute, and the character Harlequin interjects and argues the audience prefers him over both of them.[8] The painting possibly helped inspire Henry Fuseli's painting "The Infant Shakespeare between Tragedy and Comedy".[9]

The painting became one of Reynolds's most studied[5]:138 and well-known works.[4]:283 On 16 April 2018, a Twitter user called the painting "the 18th century equivalent" of the distracted boyfriend meme, an internet meme based on a stock photograph depicting a disloyal man and two women.[10] The comparison went viral, and other social media users started using the painting as a meme similar to the distracted boyfriend meme.[11]


  1. ^ a b Room 8: The Theatre of Life, Tate, retrieved 27 July 2018
  2. ^ a b c d e f Mannings, David (Spring 1984), "Reynolds, Garrick, and the Choice of Hercules", Eighteenth-Century Studies, Johns Hopkins University Press, 17 (3): 259–283, doi:10.2307/2738169, JSTOR 2738169
  3. ^ a b c d e Mannings, David (2000), Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of His Paintings, New Haven, Connecticut: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, pp. 209–210, ISBN 0300085338
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Barrett, Katy (November 2012), "'An Argument in Paint': Reynolds and Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy", Visual Culture in Britain, 13 (3): 283–302, doi:10.1080/14714787.2012.716989
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Hallett, Mark (2014), Joshua Reynolds: Portraiture in Action, New Haven: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies, pp. 138–144, ISBN 9780300196979
  6. ^ a b c Postle, Martin (1995), "Several types of ambiguity: historical portraiture and history painting", Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Subject Pictures, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, pp. 30–32, ISBN 0521420660
  7. ^ a b c Clayton, Tim (2005), "'Figures of Fame': Reynolds and the Printed Image", in Postle, Martin (ed.), Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity, London: Tate Publishing, pp. 50–51, ISBN 9781854375643
  8. ^ Wind, Edgar (1943), "Harlequin between Tragedy and Comedy", Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 6: 224–5, doi:10.2307/750440, JSTOR 750440
  9. ^ Powell, Nicolas (June 1952), "Fuseli: 'The Infant Shakespeare between Tragedy and Comedy'", The Burlington Magazine, Burlington Magazine Publications, 94 (591): 172–3, JSTOR 870708
  10. ^ Kelly, Tiffany (17 April 2018), "This 18th-century painting looks like the Distracted Boyfriend meme", The Daily Dot, retrieved 24 July 2018
  11. ^ Tansill-Suddath, Callie (17 April 2018), "The 'Distracted Boyfriend' Meme Has An 18th Century Version That People Are Going Wild For On Twitter", Bustle, retrieved 27 July 2018

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