"There are at least three versions of this, Reynolds’ most famous painting. The prime version is at the Huntington Art Gallery, San Marino. This version is also signed - although this should be interpreted more as the master's seal of approval for a fine product of his studio than as a proof of authorship.

Mrs Siddons was the most celebrated tragedienne of her day. Her identification with the Tragic Muse, Melpomene, was a commonplace of the time; here Reynolds translates this idea into a solemn Michelangelesque icon, complete with allegorical figures of Pity and Terror. This imagery could elevate a portrait to the level of a ‘history painting’ - the most respected art genre at the time. "


  • Title: Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse
  • Creator Lifespan: 1723 - 1792
  • Date: 1789
  • Physical Dimensions: w1476 x h2397 cm
  • Type: Painting
  • Medium: Oil
  • null: Sarah Kemble (1755-1831) was the sister of John Philip and Charles Kemble (see their portraits by Beechey, DPG111, and Briggs, DPG291). She married William Siddons in 1773. After a triumphant success at Drury Lane in 1782 she became the leading tragic actress in the country, until her retirement from the stage in 1812. Mrs Siddons is represented here as the Tragic Muse (Melpomene), whose attributes of a dagger and cup are held by allegorical figures of Pity and Terror. The treatment was possibly suggested by W. Russell's poem of 1783 The Tragic Muse: A Poem Addressed to Mrs Siddons. The pose, which according to the actress's own account she struck spontaneously, appears to be based on Domenichino's Saint John the Evangelist (Glyndeboume, Sussex). This painting is a replica of Reynolds's original of 1784 now in the Huntington Art Gallery, San Marino, and was painted for Noel Desenfans (see Northcote DPG28) in exchange for a painting by Rubens.
  • Work Nationality: British
  • Support: Canvas
  • Studio of: Reynolds, Sir Joshua
  • Provenance: Acquired from the artist by Noel Desenfans, 1790, for £735; London, Noel Desenfans, 1790-1807; 1804 Insurance List, no. 2. £200; London, Sir Francis Bourgeois, 1807-1811; Bourgeois Bequest, 1811.
  • Inscriptions: [REYNOLDS PINXIT]
  • Acquisition Method: Bourgeois, Sir Peter Francis (Bequest, 1811)

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