Art and Celebrity in the Age of Reynolds and Siddons
Art and Celebrity in the Age of Reynolds and Siddons
“[Siddons] was among the first celebrities to emerge from show business with the help of portrait painting. This year, she plays a starring role in [this] handsome book, Art and Celebrity in the Age of Reynolds and Siddons.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Popular actors in Georgian London, such as David Garrick, Sarah Siddons, and John Philip Kemble, gave larger-than-life performances at Drury Lane and Covent Garden; their offstage personalities garnered as much attention through portraits painted by leading artists, sensational stories in the press, and often-vicious caricatures. Likewise, artists such as Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Lawrence figured prominently outside their studios—in polite society and the emerging public sphere. McPherson considers this increasing interest in theatrical and artistic celebrities and explores the ways in which aesthetics, cultural politics, and consumption combined during this period to form a media-driven celebrity culture that is surprisingly similar to celebrity obsessions in the world today.
This richly researched study draws on a wide variety of period sources, from newspaper reviews and satirical pamphlets to caricatures and paintings by Reynolds and Lawrence as well as Thomas Gainsborough, George Romney, and Angelica Kauffman. These transport the reader to eighteenth-century London and the dynamic venues where art and celebrity converged with culture and commerce. Interweaving art history, history of performance, and cultural studies, Art and Celebrity in the Age of Reynolds and Siddons offers important insights into the intersecting worlds of artist and actor, studio and stage, high art and popular visual culture.
“[Siddons] was among the first celebrities to emerge from show business with the help of portrait painting. This year, she plays a starring role in [this] handsome book, Art and Celebrity in the Age of Reynolds and Siddons.”
“By skillfully crossing disciplines and emphasizing the correlation between celebrity and fame in late eighteenth-century English society, McPherson provides an admirable scholarly contribution that places the late eighteenth century at the core of a palimpsest that resonates into our own time.”
“One of the most important takeaways from this book is the multi-layered meaning of ‘performance,’ allowing readers to think more critically about the construction of identity in public and private life.”
“Heather McPherson undertakes a critical reevaluation of the connection between portraiture and theatrical personalities in eighteenth-century England, successfully revealing a complex multidirectional network of influence. She suggests a direct link between the eighteenth-century cult of celebrity and our own contemporary obsession with images of celebrities—in performative roles; on magazine covers; in reality television; amid scandals and triumphs. Suddenly, the eighteenth century doesn’t seem as distant or alien to this age of digital imagery and instant access, nor do we seem particularly advanced despite our technological advantages.”
“A smart, satisfying book. Heather McPherson eloquently demonstrates why the cross-pollination of the visual arts and theater resonates far beyond narrow conceptions of the stage or visual histories of particular performers, opening up, instead, valuable avenues for a richer understanding of Georgian exhibition culture as fueled by an ever-shifting, developing public.”
“Heather McPherson provides an ambitious and supple exploration of the complicated relationships between portrait painting and theatrical performance in eighteenth-century London. By juxtaposing paintings by Reynolds, Kauffman, Gainsborough, and Lawrence with contemporary caricatures, theatrical prints, memoirs, and memorabilia, she is able to evoke the origins of artistic celebrity. At the heart of her nuanced and wide-ranging study is the intriguing role of performance within the artist’s studio as well as on the boards of the London stage.”
“In her authoritative and truly interdisciplinary study of art and the stage in eighteenth-century Britain, Heather McPherson makes the gossamer of celebrity as tangible as the painted canvas or the printed page, the passionate gesture or the spectacular tableau, showing how carefully such stars as Garrick, Reynolds, Siddons, and Lawrence worked together to launch our ‘performance-based and image-driven’ culture of publicity.”
“Beautifully produced, conscientiously researched, and wide-ranging, Heather McPherson’s book offers a thorough account of eighteenth-century celebrity culture, in which art and theatre are entwined. The book tracks the sometimes uneasy relationships between studio and stage, from the changing conditions of exhibition and spectatorship to portraits, caricatures, performances, and posthumous commemorations. The resulting picture of emerging celebrity culture is packed with pertinent details and astute analysis.”
Heather McPherson is Professor of Art History at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
List of Illustrations
Introduction: Studio and Stage in the Age of Reynolds and Siddons
1 Garrick, Reynolds, and the Apotheosis of Performance
2 Portraiture, Public Display, and the Politics of Representation
3 Staging Celebrity: Siddons and Tragic Pallor
4 Targeting Celebrity: Caricature and Cultural Politics
5 Artistic Afterlives and the Historiography of Fame
Studio and Stage in the Age of Reynolds and Siddons
When a great actor dies, there is a void produced in society, a gap which requires to be filled up. . . . We have seen what a ferment has been excited among our living artists by the exhibition of the works of the Old Masters at the British Gallery. What would the actors say to it, if, by any spell or power of necromancy, all the celebrated actors, for the last hundred years could be made to appear again on the boards of Covent Garden and Drury Lane, for the last time, in all their most brilliant parts?
—William Hazlitt, “On Actors and Acting”
In a shadowy interior cluttered with unfinished canvases, a group of spectators raptly observe a woman declaiming before them (fig. 1). The raised sitter’s platform is visible in the right foreground of the scene, but the sitter’s chair has been removed. Although the setting is instantly recognizable as an artist’s studio, this is no ordinary depiction of the painter at work. It takes a moment to discern the artist, Joshua Reynolds, who is seated at far right, holding his spectacles. Like the other spectators, he is riveted by the performance of the legendary actress Sarah Siddons, whose roughed-in portrait is displayed on the easel behind them. Histrionically posed, head thrown back and arms extended, Siddons rehearses Lady Macbeth, her most celebrated tragic role. Rather than an active creator in the throes of inspiration, Reynolds is portrayed as an enthralled spectator, disenfranchised and eclipsed by his model, whose performance in the studio competes with and upstages her sketchy, unfinished portrait. This retrospective depiction of Siddons as a living work of art foregrounds the overlapping preoccupations and symbiotic rivalry of artist and model, portraiture and performance, giving the Pygmalion myth a dramatic new twist. That performative aspect is powerfully reiterated in the numerous preparatory sketches for the painting, in which the painter experimented with alternative poses, representing the actress from different vantage points, as if sculpting her in the round. In the preparatory sketches, as in the finished work, Siddons erupts dramatically and dominates the pictorial space. Performance and spectatorship are similarly thematized in painter’s sketches for an unrealized composition depicting the violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini playing before an audience.
Despite the meticulous detail and heightened sense of verisimilitude, this restaging of the encounter between Reynolds and Siddons in the artist’s studio is a piece of fiction—a modern pastiche that reimagines historical personalities and events in an elaborately woven tissue of appropriation and invention. Painted in the early twentieth century by William Quiller Orchardson (1832–1910), Mrs. Siddons in the Studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds testifies to the lasting fame of Reynolds and Siddons and the mythic aura surrounding Reynolds’s iconic 1784 canvas Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse (fig. 2). In the latter, Reynolds apotheosized Siddons as the personification of Tragedy, synthesizing Grand Manner portraiture with the direct emotional appeal of the stage and the ethos of tragedy.
In his retrospective painted tribute, Orchardson has reframed the artistic encounter between Reynolds and Siddons as a lively tableau vivant in which studio and stage, art and life, are seamlessly amalgamated, and Siddons’s “live” performance upstages her life-size, unfinished portrait and the artist who created it. This visual instance of “ghosting” is emblematic of the symbiotic posthumous fame that has continued to link Siddons and Reynolds, as discussed in chapter 5. In 1920, Orchardson’s picture was reproduced in The Sphere with the title A Famous Actress in a Famous Artist’s Studio—Mrs. Siddons in Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Studio; it follows photographic portraits of four living English painters posing in their fashionable, antique-filled studios. The caption, which identifies Siddons as a renowned artist who brought London to her feet and as a constant visitor to Reynolds’s studio, adds the bogus claim that Reynolds would sit amid his distinguished guests, working, while Siddons declaimed lines from the play she was rehearsing, thus embellishing and recontextualizing the fictive scenario.
Orchardson was widely admired for his historical and literary subjects and meticulously researched costume pieces. Primarily a studio painter, he was best known for Regency and Napoleonic subjects, as in Napoleon on Board H.M.S. Bellerophon (1880), and contemporary psychological dramas. Mrs. Siddons in the Studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1903, was Orchardson’s last major historical picture. A reviewer for The Studio praised the work’s masterful execution, subtle tonalities, and dramatic expression. Resurrecting Reynolds’s Leicester Fields studio as an artistic and theatrical arena that hosted a meeting of the minds, it evokes the famous dinners held there and the distinguished guests who attended them. Besides Siddons and Reynolds, the figures gathered in the studio (from left to right) are the statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke; a mysterious flâneur (an anonymous fashionable nobody); the comic actor Charles Macklin; Siddons’s brother and costar John Philip Kemble; the comic actress Dora Jordan; the playwright and theater manager Richard Brinsley Sheridan; and Reynolds’s assistant and biographer James Northcote. Although Siddons is the primary focus, Orchardson also rendered homage to the Comic Muse, incarnated here by Mrs. Jordan and Macklin, who counterbalance Siddons and Kemble. Burke, a close friend of Reynolds whose political writings are infused with theatricality, bookends the distinguished company.
Although Orchardson painted the principal figures from models in the studio, he also incorporated elements from actual eighteenth-century portraits in composing his metafictional tableau. A young Jewish girl, believed to closely resemble the actress, served as the model for Siddons, and Sir David Murray, Orchardson’s neighbor, sat for the figure of Reynolds. Like the composition itself, the individual figures are complex historical and artistic pastiches derived from disparate sources, echoing Reynolds’s own eclectic historicizing approach. The figure identified as Mrs. Jordan invokes Gainsborough’s Portrait of Sarah Siddons (fig. 3), a painting that Orchardson particularly admired. In a memorial tribute in The Studio (1910), Orchardson would be eulogized for his grace, distinction, and air of refinement, reminiscent of Gainsborough; the author added that his brush seemed to move to the music of a minuet.
What intrigues me most about this precocious postmodern pastiche are its intertextuality and multiple levels of referentiality, in particular Orchardson’s complex restaging of the artistic collaboration between Reynolds and Siddons, in which the simulacrum of Reynolds’s portrait is conflated with and overshadowed by the “living” actress depicted in the act of performing. The fictive nature of Orchardson’s costume drama is further underscored by the figure of the modern flâneur, who, like Barthes’s punctum, interjects a disjunctive note that punctures the historical illusion. For Orchardson, painting was a reflexive arena for transforming history and reenvisioning the past. In his fictional re-creation of Reynolds’s studio, subject trumps referent, and Siddons’s dramatic performance eclipses Reynolds’s unfinished canvas. By dramatically juxtaposing Siddons and Reynolds within the imaginary space of the artist’s studio, Orchardson implicitly invokes the rich tradition of studio pictures and allegories about the art of painting, exemplified by Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656), in which the artist’s virtuosity and the illusionism of paint are thematized. However, upon closer examination, Orchardson’s multilayered canvas suggests a different sort of artistic paragone, or emulative model, for thinking about art—more specifically, portrait painting and theatrical performance—that is particularly apposite to late eighteenth-century London. Such a model revolves around the affinities and symbiotic rivalry between painting and the stage, both of which were fundamentally concerned with performance and visual display and engaging the spectator through the powers of art and illusion.
The role of portraiture and the theater in the creation of celebrity has been recently addressed by scholars, including Felicity Nussbaum, Gill Perry, Martin Postle, Joseph Roach, and Shearer West, and in exhibitions such as The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons (2011), Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity (2005), and A Passion for Performance: Sarah Siddons and Her Portraitists (1999). The notion of theatricality, which figured so prominently in eighteenth-century debates about the relationship between painting and the stage, is encapsulated in Orchardson’s historicizing intertextual tableau. As the preliminary studies show, the dynamic gesturing figure of Siddons merged in the artist’s pictorial imagination with the twirling dancer seen from the back in his unfinished painting The Last Waltz (ca. 1905). Like the flickering images of a magic lantern or Madame Tussaud’s uncanny waxworks, Orchardson brings the dead back to life by (re)presenting the historical past as a riveting dramatic spectacle in which fact and fiction, past and present, coalesce.
Origins of Modern Celebrity
While conducting research for The Modern Portrait in Nineteenth-Century France, I became fascinated by the celebrity cult surrounding Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923), especially her exploitation of photography and the media to disseminate her star image beyond the confines of the stage. In discussions of Bernhardt, Sarah Siddons’s name kept cropping up as an antecedent, propelling the concept of celebrity back to eighteenth-century London, where theatrical stars, like Garrick and Siddons, and their artistic counterparts, like Reynolds, emerged as public personalities. What, I wondered, was celebrity like in the eighteenth century? What factors propelled the public’s growing preoccupation with the image and individual identity of the actor, and the invention of theatrical stars? How was celebrity fashioned, represented, and manipulated through images and print media, and how was it disseminated to a mass public in a prephotographic age? Finally, how were the relations among artists, performers, and the public and notions of spectatorship and cultural consumption negotiated and transformed in an increasingly commercialized society steeped in exhibition culture and theatrical display, where individualism and originality became key assets in the competitive cultural marketplace?
One of the fundamental dilemmas I faced was determining how to approach celebrity critically as a subject of historical inquiry. Is celebrity primarily grounded in discrete individual case studies, aligning it with biography and thus narrowing its purview? Or should we envision celebrity as a dynamic sociocultural phenomenon produced by a multidirectional matrix of factors, evolving over time but also possessing a period-specific, culturally identifiable footprint? This study adapts the latter approach. Focusing on the parallels between painting and the stage and the apparatus of artistic celebrity—how it was fabricated and disseminated in life and after life—it views celebrity as a broad-based, historically grounded cultural phenomenon that comes into focus through cross-disciplinary case studies from differing perspectives across a spectrum of media. Since I began my research, interest in celebrity culture and its history has expanded exponentially across disciplinary boundaries—from sociology to media studies and film to art history and performance studies—generating intense debates about the broader social and cultural significance, ideological and political ramifications, and far-reaching consequences of the celebritization of society. The work of feminist scholars such as Laura Engel, Felicity Nussbaum, Gill Perry, and Stella Tillyard has shed new light on the complex dynamics linking performance and gender identity in the case of the actress, and on the growing visibility and “feminine face” of celebrity.” Although Siddons figures prominently (notably in chapter 3), this book examines celebrity through a broader cultural lens rather than focusing exclusively on the actress or any single individual, with the aim of presenting a more panoramic multimedia picture of celebrity.
Although the history of fame and its double-edged pursuit stretches back to antiquity, Art and Celebrity in the Age of Reynolds and Siddons is concerned with the origins of modern media-based celebrity in eighteenth-century London—the unprecedented preoccupation with individual identity and the contradictory nature of modern fame that engendered what Leo Braudy aptly termed a “frenzy of renown.” In light of the Roman obsession with rhetoric, civic virtue, and theatrical display, it is not surprising that the roots of the terms denoting fame—fama and celebritas—are Latin, although “renown” is derived from the Old French word renom (literally, to rename). Under the Empire, the public, essentially political and military concept of fame was complicated and called into question by a more introverted, cultural model based on artistic or poetic achievement. For poets such as Virgil and Horace, literary fame was defined by a writer’s ability to transcend the present. Virgil also addressed the ambivalence surrounding fame, stemming from its association with rumor—with false as well as true stories. In Pliny the Younger’s letters, the quest for fame emerges as a competition and mode of literary discourse. Although avidly pursued, fame was frequently attacked and censured on moral and religious grounds. The Stoic and Christian critiques denounced fame as a fleeting and meaningless emblem of human vanity.
The centralization of power and the rise of court society in the early modern period, with its emphasis on representational identity, exhibition, and performance, ushered in a new era in the “celebritization of society.” During the Renaissance, fame increasingly became associated with public visibility, and individual writers and artists, notably Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, achieved unprecedented international renown. The far-reaching social and ideological shifts that transformed seventeenth-century Europe—the erosion of monarchical power; trade and economic expansion; the growth of individualism and evolving notions of selfhood; and new attitudes toward knowledge—laid the foundations for the emergence of a new market-oriented, media-driven concept of fame that morphed into modern celebrity culture. With the Restoration, the reopening of the theaters, the advent of female actresses, and the expansion of print media radically redefined the relationship between audience and performer, fostering an intensified personal identification, a sort of public intimacy that provided the framework for modern celebrity culture.
More than anything else, it was the explosive, democratizing power of visual and print media—the rapid diffusion of news, books, pamphlets, portraits, and caricatures—that gave rise to modern “international fame culture” in eighteenth-century England, in which the public played a central role in recognizing and validating fame. In the literary marketplace, the new periodical press redefined patronage and authorship, radically transforming the nature of literary fame. Ambitious careerists such as Laurence Sterne self-consciously manipulated the “fame machine” by courting influential cultural patrons, like David Garrick. Through print culture and the expanding reach of images, especially, the separation between celebrities and spectators was mediated and attenuated, creating an illusion of intimacy. In a society increasingly obsessed with public personalities and their private lives, biography, autobiography, and portraiture flourished, catering to the public’s seemingly endless appetite for novelty, fashion, and scandal. The parallels between portrait painting and biography were widely acknowledged by artists and writers from Jonathan Richardson to William Hazlitt. At the same time, the unprecedented proliferation and commercialization of fame threatened to devalue and tarnish it by separating fame from merit, replacing genuine heroic qualities with the debased trivia of personality. That tension is reflected in the fame discourse’s overriding obsession with differentiating between immortal, historically validated fame and the evanescent bubble of media-based celebrity driven by sensation and novelty—between authentic and false cultural value. Chris Rojek breaks down celebrity into distinct types—ascribed, achieved, and attributed—attesting to the continuing preoccupation with categorizing celebrity.
In making the case that modern celebrity culture emerged in the eighteenth century, I am intentionally using the term “celebrity” rather than “fame.” Though often used interchangeably, these terms are not entirely synonymous and differ in nuance. In modern usage, “celebrity” has the further advantage of being both an attribute and a concrete noun, underscoring the complex symbiosis of exchange value and psychological identification that still characterizes celebrity culture. Although not yet a proper noun, the concept of individual celebrity already existed—theatrical stars, beginning with Garrick, were advertised prominently on playbills and marketed as commodities. Long before the advent of film or television, fame was more likely to be associated with lasting accomplishments and permanent reputation, whereas celebrity tended to be considered more ephemeral and image driven, embodying what Daniel Boorstin has termed “wellknownness”—“the definable and publicizable personality” or vulgar notoriety.
The fact that the term “celebrity” entered the lexicon in the mid-eighteenth century is another compelling reason for using it to designate a new, rapidly evolving phenomenon. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for “celebrity” in the modern sense of being much extolled or talked about comes from The Rambler (15 October 1751), in which Samuel Johnson ruefully observed, “I did not find myself yet enriched in proportion to my celebrity.” Just how new this sense of the term was at midcentury is confirmed by the entry in Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755), which begins with the older ritual meaning (celebration), followed by the emerging sense (modern fame), without providing a citation. It comes as no surprise that Johnson, as a writer, was preoccupied with the question of literary reputation and the vicissitudes of fame. As he incisively concluded in The Rambler (7 September 1751), “Fame cannot spread wide or endure long that is not rooted in nature and manured by art.” Not coincidentally, for the eighteenth-century public, the concept of celebrity was closely linked to the proliferation of visual and print media. Referring to the prominent print publisher John Boydell, Benjamin West succinctly observed that he “spread by engravings the celebrity of British art through the civilised world.” One of the key traits associated with modern celebrity is glamour—revived by Sir Walter Scott, who aligned it with visual magic or mystery, including witchcraft, and the deceptio visus of gypsies. Glamour metamorphosed into charisma, devolving from the original Greek sense of God-given grace to political leadership or authority that inspired cult-like devotion, as evidenced in the writings of Max Weber. It also came to encapsulate the dangerously irresistible physical allure and mystique of celebrities such as Lord Byron and Napoleon, and eventually Hollywood film stars.
No late eighteenth-century writer more thoroughly scrutinized the complexities and ambiguities of fame—both modern and posthumous—and the idiosyncrasies of the artistic personality than William Hazlitt (1778–1830), the first modern historiographer of fame. In his essays, Hazlitt probed such topics as the malaise of self-importance, sitting for one’s portrait, and the ephemeral fame of the actor, who leaves no permanent record except within the collective memory. In the passage cited at the beginning of this introduction, Hazlitt imagines the theatrical equivalent to an author’s collected works or an artist’s retrospective: a parade of the greatest actors past and present, appearing in their most brilliant roles. In the same essay, he paradoxically observed that players had little cause for complaint since “one thunder of applause from pit, boxes, and gallery, is equal to a whole immortality of posthumous fame,” challenging the widely held assumption that because of its immediate sensory appeal, the theater could never attain the summit of artistic greatness. Hazlitt confidently predicted that Garrick’s name and reputation would survive alongside the works of Reynolds and Johnson. In his lecture “On the Living Poets,” Hazlitt underscored the distinction between fame, which is immortal and posthumous—generally arriving only after genius has been extinguished—from the transitory shouts of the multitude and the buzz of fashion, the hallmarks of modern celebrity. In The Spirit of the Age (1825), Hazlitt focused on the contrasting personalities of two contemporary literary giants, Byron and Scott. He devoted his final years to preparing a biography vindicating Napoleon, whom he considered the greatest figure of the modern era.
Although photography has been widely credited with democratizing portraiture and precipitating the nineteenth-century celebrity cult, visual images, notably portraits, were already a powerful means of fixing the public gaze in the eighteenth century; these ranged from life-size painted effigies to Granger’s illustrious heads, to Wedgwood’s mass-produced jasperware medallions. The Swiss miniature painter Jean-André Rouquet, struck by the prevalence of painted and engraved portraits in England, cogently observed that the display of engraved portraits provided public recognition and a means of advertisement for portrait painters. Savvy printmakers such as John Raphael Smith (1751–1812) reproduced and exhibited portraits of prominent individuals, often publishing prints simultaneously with or even in advance of the original’s exhibition. For example, Smith exhibited his print after Benjamin West’s portrait of the famous explorer Joseph Banks at the Society of Artists in April 1773, several weeks before West’s picture was shown at the Royal Academy. Moreover, as Marcia Pointon has shown, portraiture—the dominant artistic genre in eighteenth-century England—functioned as a complex system of social and symbolic representation that helped foster a unifying public discourse. Although privately commissioned, portraits were often publicly exhibited and widely disseminated in the form of prints. Functioning as visual surrogates for the public personalities they portrayed, portraits were avidly consumed and collected by an expanding urban populace that was increasingly intoxicated by celebrity.
In surveying the shifting sociocultural topography of Georgian London and the emergence of modern celebrity, I was particularly struck by the fluid social status and parallel trajectories of artists and actors, which, in the case of superstars such as Garrick, Reynolds, and Siddons, catapulted them from provincial obscurity to the front ranks of fashionable society. Despite the push for professionalization and growing public recognition that transformed the visual and performing arts in the eighteenth century, artists and actors still faced formidable obstacles, and their social status remained ambiguous. As Benjamin West sardonically observed, “Artists stood, if possible, lower in the scale of society than actors; for Garrick had redeemed the profession of the latter from the degradation to which it had been consigned. . . . But Reynolds, although in high repute as a portrait painter, and affecting gentlemanly liberality in the style of his living, was not so eminently before the public eye as to induce any change of the same consequence toward his profession.”
As I delved into the intersecting worlds of artist and actor, it became evident that the studio and the stage had much in common and overlapped, catering to the same heterogeneous urban populace in search of novelty, entertainment, and the latest celebrity gossip. Although both the Royal Academy of Arts and the patent theaters—Covent Garden and Drury Lane—were nominally under royal protection, they were, in fact, independent commercial enterprises that served the public at large as sites of cultural consumption and social interchange. This book considers how the theater and the newly enfranchised visual arts—from Grand Manner portraits to popular prints and caricatures—as well as the explosion of print—newspapers, pamphlets, memoirs, and biographies—functioned in the burgeoning public sphere as avenues of communication and cultural exchange, and it argues for their central role in the making and marketing of celebrity. The theater, which attracted a large, heterogeneous audience, was both a phenomenally popular form of entertainment and a public forum for ideological and moral debate, in which notions of British identity and nationhood were forged and vociferously contested. The eighteenth century—an era of few great plays in which popular vehicles were endlessly restaged and recycled—was undeniably the age of the actor and, increasingly, the actress. The establishment of the Royal Academy in 1768 and the advent of regular public art exhibitions profoundly transformed the London art world. During the second half of the eighteenth century, London became the capital of the European print trade and the epicenter of the rapidly expanding international art market. Artistic consumption and the growth in collecting were fueled by the rise of art dealers and auction houses and the advent of public art exhibitions. The late eighteenth century was also the golden age of caricature, which assumed a dual function as a reflector and shaper of ideas and public opinion that helped redefine the visual economy of Georgian Britain.
The book traces the evolving cultural and ideological significance of the visual and performing arts in Georgian London and the emergence of new hybrid forms of artistic expression, from theatrical portraits to satirical prints, which, in conjunction with the press and proliferating media, launched modern celebrity culture. Well-known performers such as Garrick, Siddons, and Kemble morphed into prominent public personalities who were painted by leading artists, chronicled in the press, and viciously caricatured. Likewise, artists such as Reynolds and Thomas Lawrence figured prominently in polite society and the emerging public sphere. Visual representations of the celebrated tragedienne Mrs. Siddons, ranging from Reynolds’s magisterial Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse to Gillray’s biting caricatures, are emblematic of the overlapping preoccupations of portraiture and the stage and the convergence of aesthetics, performance, and cultural politics in eighteenth-century London. As a theatrical icon who reigned over the commercialized world of culture, Siddons came to embody the contradictory passions of adulation and desecration and the multilayered patina of modern celebrity that continue to captivate the public in the twenty-first century.
More than a decade in the making, this book examines high art and popular culture—from paintings by Reynolds, Gainsborough, Kauffman, and Lawrence to caricatures, theatrical prints, and memorabilia—and draws from a wide variety of period texts—from memoirs to newspaper reviews and satirical pamphlets. It transports us to late eighteenth-century London and the venues where art and celebrity, culture and commerce, collided and overlapped—from the Royal Academy exhibitions, where the pictures on display competed with the spectacle of the public viewing them, to the stages of Drury Lane and Covent Garden, where theatrical stars such as Garrick and Siddons dazzled London’s notoriously unruly audiences with their charismatic, emotionally charged performances. Interweaving art, performance, social history, and cultural politics, the book brings to life the vibrant visual and theatrical culture of London in the age of Reynolds and Siddons. Focusing on the convergence of exhibition culture and theatrical display and the overlapping representative strategies linking painting and the stage, it provides a synthetic cross-disciplinary template for reassessing the complex interplay of the visual and performing arts and their role as crucibles of modern celebrity culture.
Ranging over roughly a century, from Garrick’s meteoric rise in the 1740s to the death of Siddons in 1831, the book encompasses the careers of the leading portraitists of the age: Reynolds (1723–1792), Gainsborough (1727–1788), Romney (1734–1802), and Lawrence (1769–1830). Politically, this was a turbulent era marked by widespread public debate and dissent, revolutions, and the gradual transformation of the British monarchy during the reigns of George III (1760–1820) and George IV, regent and king (1811–30). In particular, the book focuses on the 1780s, a transformative decade defined by the dramatic expansion of printmaking, caricature, and the art market, during which the English school and the Royal Academy exhibitions arguably reached their apogee. The London stage likewise experienced a period of exceptional brilliance consecrated by the rise of the Kemble dynasty.
Chapter 1 examines the nascent concept of celebrity through the overlapping careers of Reynolds and Garrick, focusing on the thematization of performance, both onstage and in the studio. It scrutinizes the shifting social status and rising public profiles of artist and actor against the backdrop of broader changes in cultural production and consumption and a cluster of converging preoccupations, including virtuoso display and new modes of spectatorship and connoisseurship, that contributed to the emergence of celebrity culture. As the century advanced, the visual and performing arts, which catered to a rapidly expanding urban public, became a contested arena for asserting individual and collective identity and defining nationalism. The chapter elucidates Garrick’s and Reynolds’s rise to preeminence and complicated personal and professional relations, highlighting the role the visual arts played in their public representation and their preoccupation with image management and social status. Both cultivated public personas as gentleman scholars and connoisseurs, foregrounding their intellectual and literary pursuits and embracing an aristocratic lifestyle characterized by patronage, art collecting, and conspicuous consumption. And both were key protagonists in the creation and staging of celebrity culture at midcentury.
Chapter 2 examines the intersection and cross-fertilization of fashion, celebrity, exhibition culture, and the politics of display through the lens of portraiture. It considers how pictures were displayed, viewed, and judged at the Royal Academy and other public venues and, in particular, the insights that exhibition prints and contemporary reviews provide about how portraits operated—aesthetically, culturally, and ideologically—and how the public experienced them. Because they depicted actual individuals, viewers engaged with portraits differently, adopting an interactive mode of spectatorship that oscillated between identification and recognition. Furthermore, the widespread preoccupation with individual personality and theatrical display induced spectators to apprehend portraits as staged performances. The latter part of the chapter considers the complex dynamics of celebrity, feminine fashion, public display, and social decorum evidenced in the parallel pictorial strategies deployed in representing aristocratic women and actresses. Contemporary portraits of the Duchess of Devonshire and the actresses Sarah Siddons and Elizabeth Farren provide an entry point for examining the conflation of public and private identities and the blurring of social and class distinctions fueled by the emergence of actresses as public personalities and arbiters of fashion. Although publicly feted and widely emulated as fashion icons, all three women were viciously attacked by caricaturists, testifying to the perils of female celebrity and the problematic status of women performing in the public sphere.
Chapter 3 takes a closer look at the complex symbiotic relationship between painting and the stage, which Orchardson thematizes in Mrs. Siddons in the Studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds, and shifts the focus to the spectacle of performance. Reexamining Siddons’s personification as the Tragic Muse and the broader cultural and physiological connotations of pallor, I argue that Siddons’s emblematic “tragic pallor,” embodied in Reynolds’s painting, came to signify her authenticity as a performer and her dramatic genius. From pallor’s traditional association with melancholy and death to the artificial whiteness of makeup, the chapter probes the evolving signification of pallor as an emblem of tragedy and of artistic and aristocratic distinction more generally. In particular, it focuses on the correlation between pallor and tragedy as registered in visual and verbal representations and contemporaries’ responses to Siddons’s performances. The Aristotelian ethos of tragedy and the multivalent aesthetic, sociocultural, and phenomenological valences of “tragic pallor” on the eighteenth-century stage also figure in my analysis. In making the argument that tragic pallor was emblematic of the transparency and emotional depth of Siddons’s acting and her public persona as the Tragic Muse, the broader social and aesthetic connotations of whiteness as an essential component of feminine beauty, notably in England, and as a marker of race and class should not be overlooked.
Chapter 4 reasseses the significance of caricature as a hybrid artistic discourse, highlighting its expanding role in public debates about aesthetic hierarchies and cultural politics and its dialogic nature. The chapter examines the centrality of the theater (and theatricality) as a political metaphor and elucidates the double-edged role that satirical prints played in attacking as well as reifying public personalities, from politicians to actors, underscoring how individuals and their images circulated in the public sphere and were appropriated and metamorphosed by caricaturists. Focusing on Gillray, the greatest caricaturist of the age, the chapter analyzes the complex multilayered idiom of political satire that emerged in the 1780s and the growing role that satirical prints played in articulating and shaping cultural and political debates. In prints such as Shakespeare Sacrificed (1789) and Titianus Redivivus (1797), Gillray invented a powerful new mock-heroic visual idiom, appropriating elements of high art to attack the lofty goals and nationalistic agenda of the Royal Academy and Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery. I argue that the multivalent relationship between caricature and academic art should be characterized as a sort of inverse reciprocity—both gratified the public’s preoccupation with celebrity and fashion, depended upon recognizable types, and skillfully mined the discrepancy between appropriated style and living actuality.
The concluding chapter circles back to the questions posed in the introduction about the origins and apparatus of modern celebrity culture and the historiography of fame. Focusing in particular on the central role of images and performance in fashioning and transmitting celebrity, it scrutinizes the tensions between ephemeral and lasting fame and the complex dynamics of idolatry and desecration that continue to define celebrity culture in the twenty-first century. Although the new image-based, media-driven model of celebrity that emerged in the eighteenth century was routinely denounced as a debased modern brand of fame, based on ephemeral popularity, it has nevertheless proved durable, notably in the case of Siddons. Examining Reynolds and Siddons as historical case studies of artistic celebrity, I analyze how their celebrity was invented, represented, and transmitted, during their lifetimes and posthumously; the commodification of art and acting; and gender politics, focusing especially on the paradoxical nature of posthumous fame for actors, whose distinctive interpretations of their signature roles vanish with them. Analyzing the rich afterlives and posthumous imaging of Reynolds and Siddons underscores the centrality of the visual media in promoting and transmitting artistic celebrity from the eighteenth century to the present.
Art and Celebrity in the Age of Reynolds and Siddons sheds new light on the emergence of modern celebrity culture in Georgian London and the role of the visual arts and theater in shaping public taste and defining and contesting national identity. In particular, it reassesses the symbiotic relationship and rivalry between the visual and performing arts, focusing on the centrality of the performance paradigm; exhibition culture and the heightened preoccupation with theatrical display; and cultural politics and evolving modes of spectatorship. While all the chapters address aspects of art, performance, and celebrity, they do so from different vantage points across a spectrum of media, ranging from Grand Manner portraits to caricature, and through diverse generic lenses, from tragedy to satire. Chapter 1 establishes the performance paradigm and introduces the complex matrix of connections and rivalries linking painting and the stage by analyzing the intersecting careers of Reynolds and Garrick, who are emblematic of the central role that the visual and performing arts played in the invention of modern celebrity. Chapter 2 focuses on exhibition culture and the politics of display by examining the Royal Academy exhibitions and modes of spectatorship, and it considers how fashion, female agency, and the politics of display converged in women’s portraits, especially those of actresses. Chapters 3 and 4 are concerned with aesthetic hierarchies, cultural politics, and the complexities of representation but from contrasting perspectives, operating in counterpoint. Focusing on tragedy, the highest dramatic genre, and its visual representation through the trope of tragic pallor, chapter 3 highlights the broader cultural significance of the stage and the feminization of celebrity by analyzing the symbiotic relationship between painting and the stage, as evidenced in the negative connotations of makeup. Building directly on the latter part of chapter 2, it frames the discussion of gender and body politics in the final chapter, which considers the historiography of fame and the broader cultural implications of modern celebrity and artistic afterlives.
The book fills a gap in the existing scholarship by delineating a key developmental shift in the history of modern celebrity, during which the notion of fame evolved from a historically validated, static concept to a more democratic, performance-based, media- and image-driven model that still prevails today. The chapters that follow bring the apparatus of modern celebrity culture into sharper focus by examining it through the panoramic lens of exhibition culture, the politics of display, and diverse artistic media, as well as individual celebrities such as Garrick, Reynolds, and Siddons, who are emblematic of the book’s overarching themes and broader implications—notably the central role of performance and visual media in creating and transmitting celebrity. Perhaps the most direct link between eighteenth-century celebrity culture and our contemporary obsession with the phenomenon of celebrity and images of celebrities—from A-list movie stars to athletes, from reality TV to the Internet—is the visual and performance-based nature of celebrity and the role of the mass media in shaping and disseminating it to a voracious public.
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