David Garrick (1716 - 1779) between Tragedy and Comedy

On display in:

Fountain Lobby

Order image © All images subject to copyright

Artist or maker

Reynolds, Joshua (b.1723, d.1792)



dated from exhibition (1761)

Place of production

  • London, England, United Kingdom


  • oil on canvas

Type of object

  • paintings

Accession number


Large rectangular oil painting in landscape orientation, with three figures, in the centre a man, David Garrick, accompanied by two women, one on either side, one personifying Comedy, the other Tragedy. On the left, Comedy, dressed in a low-cut pink dress, pulls Garrick's clothes. On the right, Tragedy, dressed in blue classical robes with a veil, takes Garrick's left wrist and points up. Garrick looks at Tragedy, but his body turns to Comedy. The three figures are portrayed in an exterior setting with trees in the background.

The painting is supported on an early 20th century stretcher with four openings, held within an elaborate carved and gilded wooden frame, with trophies decorating the top, and both sides.


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

Physical description

Dimensions (mm) / weight (mg)

1830 x 1476

Signature & date

not signed or dated


cat 18
on verso, upper centre to upper right on upper stretcher, chalk


[Thos Agnew & Sons label, Old Bond Street London]
Printed label
on verso, upper centre on upper stretcher

on verso, upper left on stretcher, label

[RMN label]
on verso, on stretcher

James Bourlet & Sons Ltd
B 56722
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.

Exhibition history

  • 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


  • E. Malone; The works of Sir Joshua Reynolds; 3 vols; London; Cadell & Davies; 1798; vol. 1, p. lxii, clxxii.
  • Edward Edwards, Horace Walpole; Anecdotes of painters who have resided or been born in England; London; Leigh and Sotheby; 1808; p. 188.
  • James Northcote; The Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds; 2 vols; London; Henry Colburn Publishers; 1819; vol. 1, pp. 105, 297.
  • Alan Cunningham; The lives of the most eminent British painters, sculptors, and architects; 6 vols; London; John Murray; 1829-1833; vol. 1, p. 260.
  • George Hamilton; The English School; 4 vols; London; Charles Tilt; 1831-1832; vol. 1, n.p.
  • Joshua Reynolds, Henry William Beechey; The literary works of Sir Joshua Reynolds. To which is prefixed, a memoir of the author; 2 vols; London, Edinburgh; T. Cadell, W. Blackwood and Sons; 1835; vol. 1, pp. 150, 156-57, 283.
  • William Cotton; Sir Joshua Reynolds, and his works: gleanings from his diary, unpublished manuscripts, and from other sources; London; Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans; 1856; pp. 70, 202, xii.
  • C R Leslie, T. Taylor; The Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds; 2 vols; London; John Murray; 1865; vol. 1, p. 205.
  • Algernon Graves, William Vine Cronin; A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds; 4 vols; London; Henry Graves; 1899-1901; vol. 1, pp. 350-351.
  • Erwin Panofsky; Hercules am Scheidewege und andere Antike bildstoffe in der Neuren Kunst: Studien der Bibliothek Warburg. Bd. 18.; Berlin, Leipzig; B.G. Teubner; 1930; pp. 37-39, p. 133 n. 1.
  • Edgar Wind, "Borrowed Attitudes" in Reynolds and Hogarth, Journal of the Warburg Institute, 2, 1938, 182-185; pp. 182, 184.
  • Ellis Waterhouse; Reynolds; London; Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd.,; 1941; pp. 12, 48, 50.
  • Edgar Wind, Giordano Bruno between Tragedy and Comedy, Harvard Library Bulletin, 3, 1949, 262; p. 262.
  • Ellis Waterhouse, Some Notes on the Exhibition of "Works of Arts from Midland Houses" at Birmingham, The Burlington Magazine, 95, September 1953, 305-9; p. 158.
  • R E Moore; Reynolds and the art of characterisation; Howard Anderson, John S Shea, Studies in Criticism and Aesthetics 1600-1800: essays in honour of Samuel Holt Monk, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota, 1967; 332-57; pp. 332-334.
  • Frederick Wiley Hilles; Horace Walpole and the knight of the brush; Warren Hunting Smith, Horace Walpole, Writer, Politician, and Connoisseur. Essays on the 250th Anniversary of Walpole's Birth, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1967; 141-166; pp. 146-147.
  • Ellis Waterhouse; Reynolds; London; Phaidon Press; 1973; pp. 21-22.
  • Werner Busch, Hogarths and Reynolds: Porträts des Schauspielers Garrick, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 42, 1984, 82-89; pp. 82-99.
  • David Mannings, Reynolds, Garrick and the Choice of Hercules, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 17, 1984, 259-83; pp. 259-283.
  • Ann Uhry Abrams; The valiant hero: Benjamin West and grand-style history painting; Washington, D.C.; Smithsonian Institution; 1985; p. 101, ill.
  • Nicholas Penny; Reynolds; Grand Palais, Paris, 9 October - 16 December 1985; Royal Academy of Arts, London, 16 January - 31 March 1986; London; Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 1985; no. 42, pp. 205-207.
  • Edgar Wind, Jaynie Anderson; Hume and the heroic portrait: studies in eighteenth-century imagery; Oxford; The Clarendon Press; 1986; pp. 35-39.
  • Martin Postle, Reynolds, Shaftesbury, Van Dyck and Dobson: Sources for Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy, Apollo, 132, 1990, 306-11; pp. 306-311, fig. II.
  • Bettina Baumgärtel; Angelika Kauffmann (1741-1807): Bedingungen weiblicher Kreativität in der Malerei des 18. Jahrhunderts; Weinheim; Beltz; 1990; pp. 171-174, fig. 35.
  • Martin Postle; Joshua Reynolds: The Subject Pictures; Cambridge; Cambridge University Press; 1995; pp. 20-32.
  • Richard Wendorf; Sir Joshua Reynolds: The painter in society; New Haven; Harvard University Press; 1998; pp. 114, 148-151, 156; fig. 4.
  • Maria Ines Aliverti; La Naissance de L'Acteur Moderne; Paris; Éditions Gallimard; 1998; p. 137, fig. 29.
  • Gill Perry, Colin Cunningham; Academies, Museums and Canons of Art. Histories of Art; London; Yale University Press, Open University Press; 1999; p. 132, pl. 93.
  • Shelley Bennett, Mark Leonard; "A Sublime and Masterly Performance": The Making of Sir Joshua Reynolds's "Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse"; Robyn Asleson, A Passion for Performance: Sarah Siddons and her portraitists, Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 1999; pp. 126-7 fig. 31; pp. 126-127, fig. 31.
  • Edgar Peters Bowron, Joseph J Rishel; Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century; Philadelphia Museum of Art, March 16 - May 28, 2000; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, June 25 - September 17, 2000; London; Merrell Publishers Limited; 2000; p. 54.
  • David Mannings, Martin Postle; Sir Joshua Reynolds: a Complete Catalogue of his Paintings; 2 vols; London; Yale University Press; 2000; Text vol. pp. 209-210, no. 700, Plates vol. p. 42 pl. 42, p.278 fig. 531.
  • Michael Rosenthal, Martin Myrone; Gainsborough; London; Tate Publishing; 2002; p. 100, fig. 37.
  • Richard Aylmer, David Garrick Between Tragedy and Comedy, The Reynolds's Newsletter, March 2003, 45-46; pp. 45-46, ill.
  • Joseph Roach; Patina: Mrs Siddons and the Depth of Surfaces; Robyn Asleson, Notorious Muse: The Actress in British Art and Culture 1776-1812, London, Yale University Press, 2003; 195-210; pp. 203-204, fig. 61.
  • Desmond Shawe-Taylor; Every Look Speaks; Portraits of David Garrick; Bath; Holburne Museum of Art; 2003; p. 44, fig 11.
  • Robyn Asleson; Notorious Muse: The Actress in British Art and Culture 1776-1812; London; Yale University Press; 2003; p. 204, fig. 61.
  • Robert Clark; John Goto: Capital Arcade and High Summer; John Goto, John Goto: Ukadia, Nottingham, Djanogly Art Gallery, Nottingham, 6 September - 19 October 2003, Djanogly Art Gallery, 2003; p. 37.
  • John Ingamells; National Portrait Gallery: Mid Georgian Portraits 1760-1790; London; National Portrait Gallery Publications; 2004; p. 187.
  • Les collections exceptionnelles des Rothschild: Waddesdon Manor (Hors-série de l'Estampille/l'Objet d'Art, No. 14); Dijon; Éditions Faton; 2004; pp. 22-29.
  • Joseph Farington, Martin Postle; Memoirs of Sir Joshua Reynolds, PRA; London; Pallas Athene Publishers Ltd; 2005; pp. 76-77, ill.
  • Jason Edwards; Alfred Gilbert's Aestheticism: Gilbert among Whistler, Wilde, Leighton, Pater and Burne-Jones; Aldershot; Ashgate Publishing; 2006; p. 142-143, fig. 5.2.
  • Angela Rosenthal; Angelica Kauffman: art and sensibility; New Haven, London; Yale University Press; 2006; p. 275, fig. 157.
  • Gill Perry; Spectacular Flirtations: Viewing the Actress in British Art and Theatre 1768-1820; New Haven, London; The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, Yale University Press; 2007; p. 32, fig. 21.
  • Sam Smiles; Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Acquisition of Genius; Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, 21 November 2009 - 20 February 2010; Bristol; Sansom & Company Ltd; 2009; pp. 90-91, cat. no. 26.
  • Martin Postle; The road to the Royal Academy; Sam Smiles, Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Acquisition of Genius, Bristol, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, 21 November 2009 - 20 February 2010, Sansom & Company Ltd, 2009; p. 81.
  • Jeffrey Kahan; Bettymania and the Birth of Celebrity Culture; Pennsylvania; Lehigh University Press; 2010; p. 19, fig. 2.
  • David Fairer, "Love was in the next Degree": Lyric, Satire, and Inventive Modulation, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 34, June 2011, 147-166; p. 159, fig. 2.
  • Katy Barrett, An Argument in Paint: Reynolds and Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy, Visual Culture in Britain, 13, 2012, 283-302; pp. 284, 288, 292, 297, figs. 1, 4a,b,c, 5a,b.
  • Terry Robinson, 'Life is a tragicomedy': Maria Edgeworth's Belinda and the Staging of the Realist Novel, Nineteenth-Century Literature, 67, September 2012, 139-176; p. 153, fig. 2.
  • Kerstin Pahl, The Poetics and Politics of George Romney's 'Milton and his Daughters' (1793), Transactions of the Romney Society, vol 17, 2013, 20-29; p. 26, fig. 5.
  • Robert Neuman; Baroque and Rococo Art and Architecture; London; Pearson Education; 2013; p. 395, fig. 14.6.
  • Mark Hallett; Joshua Reynolds: Portraiture in Action; New Haven; Yale University Press; 2014; pp. 138-144, fig. 128.
  • Adeline Mueller; A new ''Peep'' into Mozart and Le Picq's Serraglio (Milan, 1772): Noverre's Tragic Reworking of a Comic Ballet; Jennifer Thorp, Michael Burden, Jean-Georges Noverre 1727-1810: Lettres sur la Danse, and Beyond, Hillsdale, Pendragon Press, 2014; ill.
  • Felicity Nussbaum, The Unaccountable Pleasure of Tragedy, PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 129, 2014, 668-707; p. 698, fig. 5.
  • Lucy Davis, Mark Hallett; Sir Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint; The Wallace Collection, London (12 March - 7 June 2015); London; Wallace Collection, Paul Holberton Publishing; 2015; p. 73, fig. 48.
Other details

Subject person

  • David Garrick, Sitter