ArticleA Lady in Blue
Pondering over the reasons of some museums being more popular than others is a pleasant distraction provided by, essentially, idle curiosity. After all, there is a variety of plausible answers none of which can be proven or disproven convincingly (for instance, just like the height of a mountain is arbitrarily determined by its highest peak rather than the average height of all peaks, the popularity rating of any given museum might depend on its most famous exhibit - and it's next to impossible to compete against da Vinci's Mona Lisa). That said, a related question - why are seemingly non-essential activities like art or, say, sports so popular, to start with? - might offer a deep insight into human culture.
Human beings have aspired to run and swim faster, jump farther and hit targets, be it with stones, arrows or, later, bullets since the prehistoric times - and not in order to qualify for the next Olympics! Catching food or escaping enemies were much higher priorities, and those who managed to achieve them might have been popular simply because they were the only ones remaining! Likewise, cave paintings weren't created to pass time or show off one's skills. Prehistoric people seemed to believe that the better they would capture the image of their prospective food, the more likely their next hunt would prove successful - so, primeval artists were considered, first and foremost, meat-winners. Hence their initial popularity, preserved and enhanced over millennia. As a result, art has ever since been affected and even shaped by social issues.
In accordance with the medieval and even pre-medieval society heavily dominated by the Church, artists living in those times would express themselves through painting Christ and his family, saints and other similarly approved of characters. The Renaissance eventually brought life on Earth back into focus, and many artists shifted their attention to earthly topics and characters of flesh and blood - yet, for a while their interest was limited to royal (or, at least, noble) blood. It was not before the Age of Enlightenment that fine arts began to feature so-called "common people". Arguably, it was because of that change of focus that the art of portrait entered its Golden Age as ceremonial portraits were gradually replaced by psychological ones. While most artistically represented people were not necessarily "rank and file", they owed their fame to their talent and skills rather than birthright.
Thomas Gainsborough's Portrait of Sarah Siddons (also known as "A Lady in Blue") is permanently displayed in the National Gallery in London but it so happened that for a short period of time it was borrowed by Wallace Collection - and that's where I saw it for the first time. There was something utterly symbolic in the fact that a private museum served as a virtual meeting point for a remarkable actress, dubbed in the 18th century as "tragedy personified", and one of the most distinguished portraitist of his time (if not the whole history of the art of painting). The result of that meeting is right in front of you - an exquisite representation of femininity incarnate, and a case study of psychology in art.