Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Romantic Fictions and Casualties

Part Four:
The Prophetess and the Muse

Shortly after the death of the eldest daughter of The Tragic Muse, whom he had once thought he loved, in the same year of 1803, the artist found his ideal of physical and intellectual femininity personified in an elegant and composed woman, a refined and independent spirit who understood his temperament and his art. She was about the same age as the daughter of tragedy, perhaps a few years older, tall and dark like her, but uncomplicated by illness and sisters.

She was a model of discretion as much as beauty, a social sophisticate who made no demands on him. She did not need marriage to consummate their friendship so not a breath of scandal marred the artist's reputation ever again. Her gratification came from inspiring and guiding him to create works that would invest her with immortality by association. She was his perfect muse.

The shining culmination of the artist's love of his muse:
Sir Thomas Lawrence. Mrs. Jens Wolff, 1803 - 1815. 
© The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. W. W. Kimball Collection.
At the time she first met Lawrence, Isabella Anne Hutchinson was unhappily married to the Danish diplomat and art collector Jens Wolff from whom she later separated in 1810.

He spent twelve years painting her portrait, and it was the most emotionally tender image of a woman he ever created.

The éclat of her splendid aquiline profile, gracefully bent in contemplation of Michelangelo's drawings, recalled the artlessly drooping head of the dead girl he had tried to love, listening to her own thoughts, composing her own songs. If he had been a woman, this was how he would like to have been painted, and loved.

The Tragic Muse carried on working for a few more years after her eldest daughter's death, but she had lost some of her elemental power. The people no longer worshipped as before. They demanded to see her in the same parts, then criticized her for using “her great guns” too soon, never caring that the goddess in person really was "in paroxysms of agony".[1]

Her presence had always been monumental, but now her body had grown so heavy that could not get up without help during performances. People felt sorrier for the woman herself than the characters she was playing.

William Blake,Hecate or the Three Fates c. 1795. Tate Gallery, London. 
Image source: WGA

Despite her habit of standing outside herself, so she could control the effect she was making, mortality had overrun her divine gift. Either her own emotions had burst their banks and flooded the character she was imagining, or public taste in deities was changing....
Classically constructed arguments had failed to bring people material or spiritual relief; they wanted sensations, provided by actors whose unpredictable flashes of intuition were accompanied by thunder and lightning, fuelled by demonic energy, not pathos.

If she did not retire soon, her voice would be no longer an invisible wave rolling plangently into the hearts of her audience from her shining island shrine; it would be the grating voice of a large, middle-aged woman with a big nose, heavily made up and gesticulating ponderously on an artificially lit stage.  The final enemy of the best of actors is over-exposure.

Yet still, in the minds of many believers, among them poets and painters, who had seen her great performances, she was Immortal and Incomparable. They clung to her maternal image because they needed a constant star in a vexed world, and only she granted them intimations of divinity, a union with something greater than their everyday selves.

The Tragic Muse, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1784. Image: Wikipedia
Of all the interpreters of human personality that they had seen, she alone had inhabited the rational and emotional worlds at the same time, a classical ideal who could fulfill the passionate yearnings of revolution, who could enthuse rhetoric with spontaneous feeling, and shed the light of reason on the abyss of despair.

The affinity between the Tragic Muse and her daughters’ lover was unbroken, a fiery trail that could not be quenched, two comets blazing through the sky, never colliding. They would never be rivals because they professed different arts. They shared a secret knowledge, that they were empty unless they could act and paint. Like a tender mother, she had always understood the terrible melancholy at his core.

Radiant in mutual admiration, they could not believe in themselves unless everyone else believed in them. Even in their majesty, they craved applause like two children performing at an adults' party, relieved that they were still not found out. By the time he was an old man, the ingratiating charm of his melancholic smile was set like enamel on his face.[5] 

When he made love to women, he did not look at them, but at his own reflection in their eyes. He saw the hero of dramatic tragedy, ruled by his passions; worldly observers saw an aging male coquet.[6]

 Echo and Narcissus by J.W. Waterhouse (1849 - 1817), 1903, a devout illustrator of Romantic poetry and neoclassical mythology, who rendered the decorative possibilities of the original sources while denying their painful realities. His work re-entered popular culture in another, and under-estimated, period of Romantic revival, the 1970s.
Oil on Canvas. Collection of Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool

Their private passions did not burn the actress and artist only for so long as they could transmute them, she into speech and gesture, he into colour and shape, melding them into flaming brush strokes of red and black, showing her to the world as he saw her on stage, a goddess in a mortal setting, glowing in fire and sulphur.


 The Prophetess of Romanticism, giving one of her recitals.
Mrs Siddons, oil on canvas by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1804 © Tate 2014

[1] F.M.W. Parsons, The Incomparable Siddons, 1909, p.197
[2] Melesina St George, née Chevenix, later Mrs Trench, commenting in her Journal, 1799, quoted in Parsons, p.255.
[3] From Tom Moore's Diary, quoted by Parsons, p.274.
[4] Sarah Siddons to a visitor, quoted by Parsons, p.274
[5] Benjamin Haydon wrote in his diary, 9 January, 1830, about Sir Thomas Lawrence: "he had smiled so often and so long, that at last his smile wore the appearance of being set in enamel".
[6] Joseph Farington, minor landscape painter and gossipy diarist, described Thomas Lawrence as a "male coquet", quoted by Richard Holmes in his essay for Thomas Lawrence Portraits exhibition guide, NPG, 2010