Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 11, 2000
Robin Aselson A Passion for Performance: Sarah Siddons and Her Portraitists Getty Trust Publications, 1999. 160 pp.; 50 color ills.; 74 b/w ills. Cloth $39.95 (0892365560)

As an English professor, I rarely have the pleasure of reviewing visually stunning books, so my assessment of this book as lovely to look at does not rest on the basis of much comparison. The three essays that form the text, the plentiful (and lush) illustrations, and the lengthy chronology of Siddons’s life contained in this volume make up a fascinating picture of Siddons’s career and its alchemy with eighteenth-century portraiture. Siddons’s stage roles are only one factor in what the authors—Asleson, Shearer West, Shelley Bennett, and Mark Leonard—discuss as the production of Siddons’s image as star and cultural icon. What emerges is what one might call the eighteenth-century studies version of the modern field of star studies, with a heavy emphasis on portraiture as the form that the authors see as most important to the production of Siddons’s image.

Asleson begins with a six-page chronology that starts with Siddons’s birth in 1755 and ends with Bette Davis portraying Siddons in a tableau vivant at the 1957 Pageant of the Masters in Irvine, California. What emerges most forcefully from this list of dated events are the career vicissitudes of the legendary actor, vicissitudes that tend to fall into two categories: one, the ways in which she was inevitably misunderstood by her public, and two, the terrible physical and emotional strain of numerous pregnancies and of raising children in the context of managing a successful career.

West’s “The Public and Private Roles of Sarah Siddons” discusses the difficulties and successes of Siddons’s highly focused and intelligent professional self-management and also addresses the ways in which Siddons’s maternity plays into her fashioning of what might be called her star image. “Gender, aesthetics, and class” are the categories to which West refers in her analysis of Siddons’s public image. Siddons emerges as a canny self-manager who used her “private” role as mother to her public advantage, and who played her society’s class-based assumptions about gender like a flute. On the other hand, West makes clear the cost to health and artistic complexity of Siddons’s off and onstage performances. What had to be suppressed most carefully from her public persona was, not surprisingly, any hint of sensuality or sexual desire. Her private life as wife and mother needed to become part of a public performance from which earthiness of mind or body had to be banished. One of the most interesting moments in this essay reflects on the almost masculinizing effects of sanitizing Siddons’s performance from any taint of suspect femininity. The perfect, asexual wife and mother is almost, at times, a man‹or at least masculine.

Asleson’s “‘She was Tragedy Personified’: Crafting the Siddons Legend in Art and Life” hones in on the topic of how portraiture enters the crafting of the actor’s image. It reveals less a monadic self-fashioning than a broadly collaborative process in which Siddons and her portraitists interactively create the “Legend.” Siddons comes off as neither a pawn in the hands of her portrayers nor as unresponsive to them, but the essay admittedly has difficulties with the subject of Siddons’s agency in relation to her portraits. The possibility emerges that private performances could well have shaped the portraiture, but it is difficult to get at the evidence for the role that this highly intelligent and self-aware woman must have played in influencing her image in the hands of her painters. Indeed, the glimpses of Siddons in the artist’s studio that we have in this essay and in Bennett’s and Leonard’s study of Reynolds’s famous Muse of Tragedy painting are tantalizing. One wants to know much more about what happened in those sittings, what was said, and who determined the pose; one must also admit the impossibility of such fly-on-the-wall knowledge.

The third essay, “‘A Sublime and Masterly Performance’: The Making of Joshua Reynolds’s Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse,” focuses on Reynolds’s painterly and aesthetic process. In one sense, it nicely balances West’s essay on Siddons’s management of image by taking us into the painter’s motives and technical decisions. Offering a glimpse of the “Georgian artist’s studio,” “Reynolds’s arcane painting techniques,” and his “strategic use of the portrait to mold public perception of his genius” (98), it explores the painter’s manipulation of public image, as well as his sometimes bizarre decisions about paint and materials. Siddons’s “passion for performance” is effaced, in this essay, by Reynolds’s. I found myself farthest from my disciplinary home in this essay, but have to say that I was fascinated by the details of Reynolds’s painterly practice, assisted vividly with x-ray and cross-sectional photographs of his canvases, ably provided by Narayan Khandekar. I’m frankly not sure what to make of them in terms of my fields of cultural and literary studies, but they certainly carry an intrinsic interest even for uninformed general readers like myself.

In sum, I would recommend this beautiful and interesting book to anyone who is interested in the period, in actors, or in portraiture. My only wistfulness comes when I imagine an idealized study situating Siddons’s star image in the rich, cultural mix of visual and verbal media of the period, from high to low culture. Reynolds’s rarefied, neoclassical image of the Muse of Tragedy may have “won” in some sense, but it tends to reduce the cultural complexity that one catches glimpses of, particularly in the essays by West and Asleson. I want to know more about the “low” pamphlet literature, like the attack on Siddons by the wife of her fencing master, mentioned by West and encountered by yours truly years ago, trolling through the British Library’s vast collection of ephemera. A few caricatures and topical cartoons are reproduced in this unquestionably high-toned volume, enough to start me wondering how this collaborative performance of a stage “legend” might play out on a greater variety of cultural levels.

Kristina Straub
Carnegie Mellon University