Exhibition: ‘The First Actresses’ in London

Posted in books, catalogues, conferences (to attend), exhibitions by Editor on June 11, 2011

Press release rom the NPG:

The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons
National Portrait Gallery, London, 20 October 2011 — 8 January 2012

Curated by Gill Perry, supported by Lucy Peltz

John Hoppner, "Mrs. Robinson as 'Perdita'," 1782 © Chawton House Library, Hampshire

The first exhibition to explore art and theatre in eighteenth-century England through portraits of women will open at the National Portrait Gallery in October 2011. With 53 portraits, some brought together for the first time and others not previously seen in public, the exhibition will show the remarkable popularity of actress-portraits and provide a vivid spectacle of eighteenth-century femininity, fashion and theatricality. The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons will show large paintings of actresses in their celebrated stage roles, intimate and sensual off-stage portraits and mass-produced caricatures and prints, and explore how they contributed to the growing reputation and professional status of leading female performers.

The exhibition will combine much-loved works by artists such as Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, John Hoppner, Thomas Lawrence, Johann Zoffany and James Gillray, with some newly discovered works such as the National Portrait Gallery’s new acquisition of the Three Witches from Macbeth by Daniel Gardner.

After John Collett, "An Actress at Her Toilet or Miss Brazen just Breecht," ca. 1779

Actresses featured in the exhibition include Nell Gwyn, Kitty Clive, Hester Booth, Lavinia Fenton, Peg Woffington, Sarah Siddons, Mary Robinson, Dorothy Jordan, Elizabeth Farren, Giovanna Baccelli and Elizabeth Linley. Highlights include a little known version of Reynolds’s famous portrait of Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse, Hogarth’s The Beggar’s Opera, Gainsborough’s portraits of Giovanna Bacelli and Elizabeth Linley. Important loans include works from the Garrick Club Library, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Tate Britain, the V&A, as well as Petworth, Kenwood and Longleat Houses.

Starting with the emergence of the actress’s profession in the late seventeenth century, The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons will show how women performers, in drama, as well as music and dance, were key figures within a spectacular celebrity culture. Fuelled by gossipy theatre and art reviews, satirical prints and the growing taste for biography, eighteenth-century society engaged in heated debate about the moral and sexual decorum of women on stage and revelled in the traditional association between actress and prostitute, or ‘whores and divines’. The exhibition will also reveal the many ways in which women performers stimulated artistic innovation and creativity and provoked intellectual debate.

As well as focusing on the eighteenth-century actress as a glamorous subject of high art portraits, and the ‘feminine face’ of eighteenth century celebrity culture, the exhibition will look at the resonances with modern celebrity culture and the enduring notion of the actress as fashion icon.  As a counterpoint to the exhibition, an accompanying display will show photographic and painted portraits, drawn from the Gallery’s permanent collections, of some of today’s actresses, some of whom have agreed to be the exhibition’s ‘Actress Ambassadors’. A full list will be published prior to opening.

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An exhibition conference will take place on Friday, 11 November 2011.

Exhibition catalogue: Gill Perry with Joseph Roach and Shearer West, The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2011), 160 pages, ISBN: 9781855144118, £30.

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