Performance, Identity, Celebrity, Gender, Race – Theatricality and Politics in 18th-Century British Painting

Posted: June 13, 2017 in Uncategorized

(all these readings are strictly optional! all the images are clickable links.)

Michael Fried attacks Theatricality in his studies of both traditional and contemporary art, and champions instead the virtues of immediacy, sincerity and authenticity. These he finds exampled in the best French painting of the 18-century and the best British and American art of the 20th century. Fried’s writings say almost nothing about British painting in the 18th century, and this is because there we find art which is not merely accidentally but quite deliberately Theatrical, as can be seen in the images below, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, president of the British Academy. This style of heroic portrait painting has for generations been understood to be of merely relative value, precisely because it didn’t meet, despite its own aspiration of ‘grandeur,’ the reigning critical standards of excellence. In very recent decades, however, those paintings have undergone a process of collective reappraisal and rehabilitation. The reversal of fortune can, in many respects, be related to the rise of a new academic discipline, Performance Studies.

Do the portraits below strike you as indeed theatrical? In what ways? Can you identify the conventions of this style of painting? Also, what relationships do you believe might exist between performance and the politics of gender and race? What, for instance, do you find notable about Joshua Reynold’s Study of A Black Man, and in what ways does this portrait correspond to the groundbreaking writings of the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft? (Note that the cover image on Vindication was painted by the French woman Adelaide Labille-Guiard, not Joshua Reynolds. How does it differ from the work of Reynolds? Do the differences matter?)


Susan Siegfried
“Engaging the Audience: Sexual Economies
of Vision in Joseph Wright”

Representations, No. 68. (Autumn, 1999), pp. 34-58.

Joshua Reynolds,
Mrs. Abington as Miss Prue
in ‘Love for Love,’
by William Congreve
Oil on canvas
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Sir Joshua Reynolds
Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse (1789)
Oil on canvas
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

(Reynolds’ famous speeches
to the Royal Academy on
the “Grand Style”)

Joshua Reynolds and The Creation of Celebrity

TATE Gallery, London
May – September 2005

The Black Figure in 18th-century Art
Sir Joshua Reynolds
Study of A Black Man, (c. 1770)
Oil on canvas

Johnson, who was passionately opposed to slavery, developed a deep affection for Barber,
treating him more like a son than a servant. He paid for Barber’s education
– five years at the grammar school in Bishop’s Stortford from 1767.
Johnson wrote tenderly to Barber, encouraging him to read
and reassuring him of his abiding affection.

Mary Wollstonecraft
(1759 – 1797)
“A Vindication of The Rights of Women”

(books 2, 4 and 9)

  1. A. Anderson says:

    I guess these are theatrical in the lighting and angle, if you use the term “theatrical” somewhat loosely. To make a picture look interesting, one needs to craft it in such a way that it directs the viewer’s attention in a predetermined way, at least according to western painting traditions. That first one in particular has great lighting that leaves an atmosphere of suspense, creating a sort of story. To me, the first painting looks like a number of people discussing dangerous ideas.

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