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Influences from the Stage

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Influences From the Stage

The Performances of Sarah Siddons

Though many of Boydell’s artists called upon their own imaginations for their depictions of scenes, just as many drew on their experiences as playgoers.  Especially popular were celebrity actors in signature roles, such as Dorothy Jordan in As You Like It, Sarah Siddons and her brother Charles Kemble in Macbeth.


Sarah Siddons, née Kemble (1755–1831), was celebrated for her acting in serious roles. She made her fame portraying Shakespeare’s Volumnia from Coriolanus, Constance from King John, and particularly Lady Macbeth. Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) painted her as the “Tragic Muse”; and William Hazlitt (1778–1830) called her “tragedy personified.” After her retirement from the stage in 1812, she performed readings and taught elocution to the royal children.


Mrs. Siddons' performances not only awed audiences, but inspired the greatest artists of the time. Drawn from Mrs. Siddons’s powerful portrayal of Lady Macbeth, the illustration (image at left) depicts her invocation of “spirits” to “unsex” her in order to fill her with “direst cruelty.” This scene allowed Siddons to demonstrate Lady Macbeth’s strength in startling contrast to her later remorse. In 1812, when Siddons retired from the stage in a performance as Lady Macbeth, the audience applauded so long after her sleepwalking scene, that Siddons ended the performance at this stellar moment.


In this preliminary sketch to his painting for Boydell (image at left), the well-known artist Richard Westall captures the emotion of Lady Macbeth’s remorse, in her open, but unseeing eyes, and her hands held out from her body. Rubbing her hands to remove the spots of Duncan’s blood that haunt her, Lady Macbeth is observed with concern by the Doctor and a Gentlewoman. Westall’s painting of Lady Macbeth is one of twenty-three paintings he contributed to the Gallery, four of which are scenes from   Macbeth.


Once attributed to Shakspeare Gallery artist Robert Smirke, this oil painting (image at left) shows Lady Macbeth reaching to take the dagger from her husband’s hand, after he has murdered Duncan. The facial profile and overall bearing of Lady Macbeth suggest Mrs. Siddons, who famously performed the role from 1785 until her retirement in 1812.



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Portrait of Sarah Siddons. Enamel, 1798.

Exhibition Highlights

J. Parker after R. Westall. Macbeth. Act I. Scene V. Engraving, 4 June 1800

Richard Westall. Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep. Watercolor, 1797

R. Smirke. Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth. Oil painting, ca. 1790-1810

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