Sarah Siddons as Gore Vidal’s Muse

Sarah (Kemble) Siddons as the Tragic Muse, 1783-1784. Joshua Reynolds, British, 1723-1792. Oil on canvas, 94 1/4 x 58 1/8 in.

I feel as if I met Gore Vidal years before I actually did. In 2006 I saw him dining at Musso and Frank’s on Hollywood Blvd. with several young and attractive men. I was star struck. I walked over and hovered nearby. Sensing my interest, the waiters protectively moved forward to shelter Mr. Vidal from my fervent attention.

Since the days of his televised tangles over politics and his boundary-pushing literature, I have been thrilled by his intelligence, erudition, fearlessness, and impassioned political views. Several years later when I began work at The Huntington, I heard from friends that he loved the art collections here. I was eventually invited to his house for what would be one in a series of visits. We spoke only of Italy (where he lived for many years) and art, as I was woefully incapable of keeping up with his political commentary and gossip of years gone by.

I accompanied him on several visits to the Huntington Art Gallery, where he appeared perfectly at home among the 18th-century luminaries, whose portraits grace the walls. At one point, he appeared to engage Sarah Siddons in conversation, lingering thoughtfully in front of her great portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds. In the Hollywood Hills home where Mr. Vidal passed away this past Tuesday, hangs a portrait of the 18th-century actor William Linley by an unknown artist who painted in the style of British portrait painter Sir Thomas Lawrence. Mr. Vidal claimed to be related to the young and attractive Linley, who, he contended, had been married to Sarah Siddons’ daughter. No wonder he and Sarah seemed to be on a first name basis.

Hess and Vidal at The Huntington on November 10, 2011.

Catherine Hess is the chief curator of European art at The Huntington.

2 thoughts on “Sarah Siddons as Gore Vidal’s Muse

  1. How delightful to learn of this connection between a literary giant and a particular canvas of the Huntington’s art collection. Every vignette enhances the institution; thanks for sharing.
    – from a lover of art and literature.

  2. Pingback: » Buying a Turner

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