Comedy & Tragedy: 'Sic Vita'
Sir Alfred Gilbert
Bronze with rich, dark-brown patina
Height: 14 2/5" (34cm)
Conceived circa 1890 and cast at a later date
The Fine Art Society, London.
‘Clarice: Shall it be comedy, then?
Abbé Dubois: Tragedy!
De La Ferté: Comedy!
Doctor Choquart: Gentlemen, let us benefit by this difference of opinion. Let us say comedy first, and tragedy afterwards.’
W.S.Gilbert, Comedy and Tragedy, first performed at the Lyceum Theatre (London) on 26th January 1884
Sir Alfred Gilbert was one of the most original and ambitious sculptors of the Victorian era and a key figure of the New Sculpture movement. Born in London in 1854, he was the eldest son of professional musicians, Charlotte Cole and Alfred Gilbert Sr. He was admitted into the Royal Academy Schools in 1873 and, in 1875, moved to Paris to study at the École des Beaux-Arts under the tutelage of sculptor, Pierre-Jules Cavelier.
Gilbert’s move abroad was fundamental in developing his artistic language. He travelled and worked in Italy, settling in Rome in 1878, where the Italian Renaissance had a lasting influence on his craft.
Gilbert's first publicly exhibited bronzes at the Royal Academy and Grosvenor Gallery were sent to London from Rome, causing great sensation among the British public. These included Perseus Arming (1882) and Icarus (1884), which cemented the young sculptor's reputation and contributed to the development of New Sculpture aesthetics.
Returning to London in 1885, at Frederic Leighton’s request, Gilbert was commissioned to design the Fawcett Memorial for Westminster Abbey. This was to be the first of many Royal commissions, including the design of the Queen Victoria Winchester Jubilee Memorial, exhibited in 1887 and now installed in the Great Hall at Winchester Castle.
In 1886, he began work on the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain for Piccadilly Circus in London, a year later gaining the title of Associate of the Royal Academy. The iconic monument features a giant model of Anteros (now commonly known as Eros). This was the first-ever statue cast in aluminium in England.
Sir Alfred Gilbert, Anteros (Eros), Aluminium and Bronze, c.1885-1893, Piccadilly Circus, London
The present piece was the first ever independent bronze figure Gilbert set out to create after producing An Offering to Hymen in 1886. The artist regarded it as ‘the climax’ of his ‘cycle of stories’—the last chapter of his trilogy of self-portraits, which includes Perseus Arming (1881) and Icarus (1884).
The work is reflective of Gilbert’s mind in the early 1890s. By this point, Gilbert was a well-known sculptor with Royal patronage and a seemingly impeccable career ahead of him. Yet, in his private life he was struggling; mounting debts, problems with his patrons and a sick wife had left the artist in a state of anxiety and depression. The artist was likely further inspired to produce this sculpture after he attended the play “Comedy and Tragedy” by William Gilbert, which was staged at the Lyceum Theatre in London in the 1880s and where his friend, the American actress Mary Anderson, played the lead role.
As is often the case with Gilbert’s work, it is only through his words that one can fully grasp the symbolism of the piece. During an interview given in the 1903 Easter Art Annual, the artist remarked how the sculpture ‘represents a boy carrying a comic mask. He is stung by a bee - the symbol of love. He turns, and his face becomes tragic. The symbol is in reality fact. I was stung [...] by my love for my art, a consciousness of its incompleteness. [...] I was living a kind of double life at that time, enjoying the society of Irving and Toole and other famous and pleasant members of the Garrick Club going to the theatre at night, and with Tragedy in my private life, living my Comedy publicly, if not enjoying it'.
Combining such contrasting images in one work was not easy. To achieve this, Gilbert elaborated a complex but highly effective composition, which engages the viewer in the round. The result is a tour de force in modelling, displaying a mannerist twist that is reminiscent of Giambologna’s (1529-1608) work—an early master of the multi- viewpoint sculpture. The success of the model led the artist to cast it in two different sizes, 76cm and 34cm.
The original plaster model for the 76cm version is currently part of the Victoria and Albert Museum collection. Bronzes from this and the smaller model are currently part of the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford), the Scottish National Gallery (Edinburgh), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) and the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC), among other collections around the world.
Benedict Read, Victorian Sculpture (London: 1983), p. 341.
Susan Beattie, The New Sculpture (London: 1983), pp. 162, 177, plate 157.
Richard Dormet, Alfred Gilbert (London: 1985), pp. 116-118, plates 22-24.
Richard Dormet, Alfred Gilbert: Sculptor and Goldsmith (London: 1986), pp. 108, 130, 134, 221, plates 81-83.