There was no Instagram, paparazzi or 24-hour news cycle in Sarah Siddons’ day, but if there had been it’s a good bet England’s most celebrated actress of the 18th century would have taken advantage of modern day promotional opportunities.
The British-born actress (1755-1831) ruled the London stage as the greatest tragedienne actress of her time, earning the title of the “Muse of Tragedy” for her powerful performances. She was most famous for her dramatic portrayals of long-suffering heroines in plays such as “The Mourning Bride” and “Macbeth.”
Siddons regularly caused ladies to faint and gentlemen to weep. Her performance of Isabella in “Fatal Marriage” at London’s Drury Lane on July 9, 1783 was so moving that “109 ladies fainted, 46 went into fits and 99 had strong hysterics,” a London newspaper reported.
Siddons’ passion “emanated from her breast as from a shrine. She was tragedy personified,” said English writer William Hazlitt.
An 18th century star is born
As a dramatic actress, she was the Meryl Streep of her day. But Siddons was nearly as famous for her flair for self-promotion as she was for mastering her craft.
Siddons socialized with powerful, wealthy patrons and England’s most well-known artists and writers. Art historians believe Siddons used those relationships to transform her public persona from actress to beloved icon.
Describing herself in one newspaper report as an ‘ambitious candidate for fame,’ Siddons used portraiture for publicity.
Engravings of the actress were regularly handed out in the streets. The public worshiped her. When the actress toured Scotland in 1784, the word “Siddonimania” was coined to describe adulation she received from those who caught “Siddons fever.”
She posed for more than 55 portraits painted by notable artists including Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, George Romney, Thomas Lawrence, and Gilbert Stuart, all of which are are catalogued in “A Passion for Performance: Sarah Siddons and Her Portraitists.”
Perhaps the most famous portrait, “Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse” by Reynolds was the image used to represent the Sarah Siddons Award given by the fictional Sarah Siddons Society in the 1950 film “All About Eve” starring Bette Davis. (The film was nominated for 14 Oscars.) Inspired by the film, a group of Chicago theatre-goers in 1952 established a real Sarah Siddons Society which annually recognizes the city’s finest in dramatic achievements.
Davis later posed as Siddons in a re-creation of the painting in 1957.
Siddons poses for America’s most popular portraitist
Much less famous were the portraits by well-known artists Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) and Sir William Beechey (1793-1839) – both of which hang in the National Portrait Gallery in London today.
Stuart, an American artist, was considered one of the great portrait painters of his era. His best-known work is the unfinished portrait of George Washington that appears on the one dollar bill.
Stuart opened his own London studio in 1782 and for five years received portrait commissions from some of England’s most prominent families. It was there in 1787 that Stuart painted his portrait of Siddons. It’s very possible he made a copy of the painting, since he was known to paint companion portraits of his own work.
Mounting debt forced Stuart to escape England for Ireland, but his burning desire to paint Washington led him back to the United States.
Stuart recognized the potential for profits from replicas of portraits of Washington. Among his records was a memorandum dated April 20, 1795 that listed 32 commissions for replicas of the first president’s portrait. Art historians believe there are at least 130 copies of the famous Washington portrait were painted either by Stuart or his daughter, Jane (1812-88.)
By the end of his career, Stuart had painted the likenesses of more than one thousand political and social figures in the U.S. and abroad, including six presidents.
When Stuart died penniless in 1828, Jane became the sole support of the family at age 16.
The youngest of Stuart’s 12 children, Jane, was considered an artistic prodigy. She worked as an assistant in his studio, grinding paints, filling in backgrounds and finishing secondary areas of his paintings, according to Jane’s biography on the Gilbert Stuart Birthplace and Museum website.
Stuart called Jane his “best copyist” and said that she painted better than he did at that age. Jane made numerous copies of her father’s paintings but also became a noted artist for own work. It’s very likely Jane also copied her father’s memorable portrait of Sarah Siddons. A portrait of Siddons, probably painted by Jane in the style of Gilbert Stuart, was painted in the 19th century and is currently on display at Worthington Galleries.
We tend to think of ‘celebrity’ as a modern-day phenomenon but Stuart and Siddons knew differently. While their names might be unknown to most in the 21st century, their mutual quests for fame and fortune gave them a kind of immortality that has endured.
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