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Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792)
David Garrick between Comedy and Tragedy
1761
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David Garrick (1717-1779) was the most famous English actor of the 18th century. He was remarkably good at promoting his own image and he inspired a number of artworks.

Think about modern-day celebrities and the ways they present themselves.

This mock-heroic composition is full of jokes and references to mythology and the Grand Tradition of European painting. It is based on representations of the Choice of Hercules, a subject found in ancient Greek and Latin literature. The classical god Hercules was asked to choose between Pleasure and Virtue and chose the more difficult but honourable path of Virtue. In this picture, Garrick is torn between the two dramatic genres of Comedy and Tragedy. Is he apologising to the figure of Tragedy while he yields laughingly to the seductive figure of Comedy? Is he shrugging? Is he politely beseeching her to understand and to forgive? The figure of Tragedy is strong and stiff, her gestures stylised - a little like a classical statue. Comedy looks out at us. Is she proud of her triumph? The direction of Tragedy’s gaze fixes our eye on Garrick’s face whose lively angle and remarkable animation contrasts with her stern profile.

Ask the class to think about choices they have had to make. How would they show this choice in a picture of themselves? What figures would they use to represent a choice?

The frame is an integral part of this work of art; the musical instruments and masks that decorate the frame refer to Garrick’s talents.

Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) was born in Devon, where his father was headmaster of the Grammar School, so Reynolds was brought up in a more educated family than most painters of his time. He moved confidently in the company of writers, philosophers and statesmen and his example did much to raise the status of the painter in Britain. Reynolds’s early professional years were split between London and Devonshire, but his work really began to flourish after a prolonged trip to Italy (1749-1752) where he studied classical sculpture and renaissance painting. He returned to London where was made first President of the Royal Academy in 1768 and was knighted in 1769. Although he did produce some history paintings, he made his living primarily through portrait painting. In his most innovative portraits he treats the subject in an historical manner - a woman in the guise of a classical goddess or a young nobleman striking the pose of a celebrated Antique statue.

Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick between Comedy and Tragedy, 1761
Materials and technique: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 148 x 183 cm
Waddesdon, The Rothschild Collection (Rothschild Family Trust): 102.1995
Pose and Expression
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