David Garrick (1716 - 1779) between Tragedy and Comedy
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David Garrick (1717-1779) was the most famous English actor of the eighteenth century. Particularly associated with Shakespearian roles, he introduced a more naturalistic and expressive style of acting that transformed the European stage. He also wrote plays and ran the Drury Lane theatre. He was remarkably good at promoting his own image and inspired several works of art.
Reynolds was interested in painting elevated, intellectually ambitious pictures. He had travelled to Italy in 1750-52, studying the works of the Old Masters, and later became the first president of the Royal Academy of Painting, which he helped to establish. This portrait glorifies both Garrick’s skill as an actor and Reynolds’s abilities as a learned artist. The mock-heroic composition is full of jokes and references to mythology and the Grand Tradition of European painting, including works by Peter Paul Rubens, Antony Van Dyck, Guido Reni and Antonio da Correggio.
Garrick is shown caught between the muses of comic and tragic theatre. The subject is based upon the story of the Choice of Hercules, found in ancient Greek and Latin literature, depicted by several artists, and widely known and discussed in eighteenth-century Britain. The classical god Hercules had to choose between Virtue and Pleasure. He chose the more difficult but honourable path of Virtue. In this portrait, Garrick laughingly apologises to the figure of Tragedy while he yields to the seductive figure of Comedy.
Comedy, looks out at us, proud of her triumph. The figure demonstrates Reynolds’s mastery of the soft style of Corregio and the fluidity of rococo painting. The figure of Tragedy is strong and stiff, more like the work of Guido Reni or the newly fashionable Neoclassical style. Her declamatory gesture looks back to an old-fashioned style of acting from which Garrick leads Comedy away.
The frame complements the painting. The musical instruments and mask of Comedy and the chalice, emblematic of Tragedy echo the themes of the painting. Together with the scroll and portrait of William Shakespeare they pay homage to Garrick’s talents as an actor-manager and playwright.
Juliet Carey and Phillippa Plock, 2012
Dimensions (mm) / weight (mg)
1830 x 1476
Signature & date
not signed or dated
on verso, upper centre to upper right on upper stretcher, chalk
[Thos Agnew & Sons label, Old Bond Street London]
on verso, upper centre on upper stretcher
on verso, upper left on stretcher, label
on verso, on stretcher
James Bourlet & Sons Ltd
17-18 Nassau Street
on verso, on stretcher
- Bought from the artist by George Montagu-Dunk, 2nd Earl of Halifax (b.1716, d.1771); sold at 2nd Earl of Halifax sale, Christie's, London, 20 April 1782, lot no. 75; bought at Earl of Halifax sale by John-Julius Angerstein (b.1732, d.1823); by descent in the Angerstein family, probably to his grandson William Angerstein (b.1811, d.1897); bought by Wertheimer from the Angerstein family after 1872; bought from Wertheimer by Thomas Agnew & Sons Ltd on behalf of Nathaniel Mayer Rothschild, 1st Baron Rothschild (b.1840, d.1915), for Tring Park, 11 June 1885; then to a Rothschild Family Trust.
- Society of Artists, London, 1762, no. 88, as 'Mr Garrick, between the two muses of tragedy and comedy'
- British Institute, London, 1813, no. 32,
- British Institute, London, 1843, no. 26
- British Institute, London, 1851, no. 70
- 'Second special exhibition of National Portraits', South Kensington Museum, London, 1867, no. 594
- Royal Academy, London, 1872, no. 78
- 'Sir Joshua Reynolds's Loan Exhibition', 45 Park Lane, London, 1937, no. 88
- 'The First Hundred Years of the Royal Academy 1769-1868', Royal Academy, London, 1951, no. 18
- 'Reynolds', Grand Palais, Paris, 1985, no. 21
- 'Reynolds, Royal Academy, London, 1986, no. 42
- 'Every look speaks: Portraits of David Garrick', Holburne Museum, Bath,16 September - December 2003
- 'Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity', Tate Britain, London, 26 May - 25 September 2005
- 'Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Acquisition of Genius: An international artist, a forgotten local hero', Plymouth City Art Museum, 21 November 2009 - 20 February 2010
- Waddesdon (Rothschild Family)
- On loan since 1995
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- David Garrick, Sitter
Person as Subject
- Allegory & Personifications/Comedy & Tragedy
- Allegory & Personifications/Virtue
- Allegory & Personifications/Vices
- Mythology/Gods & Goddesses/Hercules
- Nature, Landscape & The Elements/Countryside
- Nature, Landscape & The Elements/Trees & Plants
- Objects/Armour & Weaponry/Dagger
- Objects/Theatrical Items/Mask
- Objects/Clothing & Personal Effects/Veil