Of the nearly 400 portraits of the legendary actress Sarah Siddons that have been recorded, this one is considered her defining image. It is also renowned as one of Reynolds’s greatest paintings. Siddons had recently taken London by storm with her performance in a string of heartbreaking tragic roles when she posed for Reynolds.
Siddons appears as an austere icon of Tragedy, seemingly enthroned for all eternity. Conscious that he was painting a theatrical star, Reynolds dressed Siddons in the way audiences were accustomed to seeing her on stage. She wears a sumptuous gold dress with scalloped sleeves – a fanciful variation on 17th-century style – a diadem, and a twisted strand of pearls. Two figures behind her allude to Aristotle’s statement that the value of tragedy lies in the emotional catharsis it engenders through the experience of fear and pity. On the right, holding a poisoned chalice, is the figure of Terror, whose grimacing face was modeled on Reynolds’s own features studied in a mirror. To the left, clutching a dagger, is the figure of Pity. Reynolds’s muted color scheme enhances the drama, while the spotlight on the star allows the supporting players to fade into the shadows.