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Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse

Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse
Reynolds, Sir Joshua - Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse - Google Art Project.jpg
ArtistJoshua Reynolds
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions240 cm × 148 cm (94 in × 58 in)
LocationHuntington Art Gallery, San Marino, California, United States

Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse is a 1784 oil painting by Joshua Reynolds.

[1] The story of Mrs. Siddons as The Tragic Muse is two-fold. There is the story of the real-life Mrs. Siddons who was a Shakespearean actress in the 18th century, and then there's the story of the Greek and Roman myth of Melpomene, the muse of tragedy. Both are explained below.

Mrs. Sarah Siddons:

Sarah Siddons was a well-known actress of the 18th century who became famous for her role as Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth. Born Sarah Kemble, aged 18 she married William Siddons, also an actor, and they had seven children of who only two survived.

Sarah's parents sent her to work as a lady's maid and with this job she was exposed to the works of England's literary greats such as Milton and Shakespeare. She also began acting and had a natural ability.

Eventually her marriage to William became strained and they separated from each other on their own terms.

Her acting career prospered and she was offered a position at Drury Lane where she became infamous for her role as the Queen of Tragedy and eventually was the leading actress at the theater. It has been said she funneled all of her sorrows from the death of her five children and her unhappy marriage into her acting and was invited to do private performances for the royal family.

Mrs. Siddons mixed with the well-to-do society of England throughout her life as well as knowing numerous playwrights and acting alongside the famous actor David Garrick, who was also frequently painted by Reynolds and Gainsborough.

Muse of Tragedy:

Melpoméne is a character from Greek and Roman mythology, one of nine muses of the arts. She was originally the Muse of Song but then became the Muse of Tragedy. Singing was often utilized in Greek tragedies, which is how the transition from Melpoméne's identification with song shifted to tragedy.

The name Melpoméne comes from the Greek word melpo or melpomai, which means "to celebrate with dance and song. "In many statues and paintings of Melpoméne, she is represented with a tragic mask and also often holds in her other hand a knife or club.

In Greek mythology, she is the daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, who had eight other daughters, Melpoméne's sisters and the eight other muses are: Calliope, muse of epic poetry; Clio, muse of history; Euterpe, muse of flute playing; Terpsichore, muse of dancing; Erato, muse of erotic poetry; Thalia muse of comedy; Polyhymnia, muse of hymns; and Urania, muse of astronomy.

Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse, Inspirations for the Work

Reynolds was inspired not only by Sarah Siddons' extreme talent to embody the tragic heroine in Macbeth, but also by the Classical subject matter of the muses from ancient Greek/Roman mythologies that numerous sculptors tried to create. Reynolds painted Siddons as Melpomene, the muse of tragedy.

This work was painted when Mrs. Siddons was 28 years old and in the prime of her career. When she entered Reynolds' studio he took her by the hand and said, "Ascend upon your undisputed throne, and graciously bestow upon me some great idea of the Tragic Muse".

Like the old masters, Reynolds signed his name secretly in the work by putting it on the gold embroidery at the hem of her dress. Some stipulate that Reynolds had used Mrs. Siddons as a public stint to gain attention after his last exhibition which was not as well received. But this is debatable.

Many scholars believe that Reynolds was inspired by Michelangelo's "Isaiah," (see Related Paintngs below) found on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but Siddons maintained that the similarity in posture and body position were merely coincidental. Reynolds, she had said, had initially painted her in another position and she had shifted to a more favorable one.

Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse Analysis


Reynolds' technique for this composition relied heavily on his lighting effects and bold outlining that looked to reinforce natural harmony. The subject is in the full light and her presence is boldly outlined using this technique. The two allegories, Pity and Terror, stand behind her on two deeper planes.

Expression of Tragedy:

Reynolds painted Siddons' expression clearly in conflict yet with a very elegant and noble air that exuded a sense of grace. She looks undecided as the allegories cloud her judgment about her difficult situation which nevertheless will end in tragedy for the crime Lady Macbeth will commit, and the remorse she will suffer.

Reynolds knew that viewers of the piece would instantly identify it with Siddons' most famous acting role - Lady Macbeth.

Color Palette:

Reynolds uses elements of black and bright orange highlighting through the whole image to accentuate the sitter as the two figures, their facades painted in sweeping shadows, look to blend in with the brown, tempestuous background.

The flesh tone is achieved with various layering of whites over carmine and lake madder, with ultramarine and darker blue mixes Siddon's neck and skin in the shadow. Hints of grey are also present for the more prominent shadow areas.

Her dress is swathed in an array of delicately mixed yellow ochre, with dark and light browns. Various tints of orange can be seen showing through for the highlighted areas of the golden fabrics to create a natural sheen that reflects real life. Grays and stark white coats override the colors and image where shadow and light play.

Brush Work:

Siddons' head is very thinly painted with a delicate and fine brush while the coloring of her face is kept to a fine, thin layer. In fact, Reynolds feared that by over-glazing, he would ruin the final outcome.

The artist applies fine detail to the folds of the rich heavy fabric. The dress has looser, broader strokes as well as her shirt folds, which contain strong dashes of white strokes haphazardly applied around her arm with light brown and grey intermixed for the play of shadow in the folds to create depth. These strokes are both loose and light.

Soft, rounded strokes are used for the perilous clouds that gather around the actress' feet with rounded lines in red-orange for dramatic effect. The same bright orange can be seen in the drapery over her lap as well and in the allegorical figures.

These figures have smooth soft lines to make them look like actual sculptures in the fashion they were usually depicted in the classical style.


  1. ^ "Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse". Artble. Retrieved 2016-11-15.

Further reading

  • Gill Perry: Spectacular Flirtations; Viewing the Actress in British Art and Theatre 1768-1820. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-300-13544-2