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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Painting Shakespeare

 The Plays of William Shakespeare, 1849, Sir John Gilbert
Most people have seen all or parts of a Shakespearean play, probably not on stage, but on TV or perhaps as a movie. However, long before there was TV or the movies...I almost added, long before there was Shakespeare...but certainly less than a century after there was Shakespeare, artists were presenting on canvas and as etched illustrations in books, scenes from some of his plays. The first of these were published about 1709 with the first edition of Shakespeare's collected works. That's only ninety-three years after the playwright died of unknown causes in 1616.

Until recently, Shakespeare appearance was based upon the etching above. Since 2006, most Shakespearean scholars have come to accept the painting at the top by an unknown Jacobean artist as the only authentic portrait of Shakespeare, also the basis of the etching.
Before Pages House.
The Merry Wives of
Windsor, Act I, Scene I.
Robert Smirke, R. A.
The first major effort in creating paintings of Shakespeare’s characters was the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, which operated in London from 1789 to 1805. This major project enlisted artists to interpret scenes from Shakespeare’s plays as well as imagining some of the scenes he described. The choice of characters and moments from the plays are often the most popular on stage: the ghost appearing to Hamlet, Falstaff being bundled into the buck basket. But sometimes the artists responded to Shakespeare’s descriptions of events such as the murder of the princes in Richard III and the horseback entrance into London of Richard II and Bolingbroke. Each of John Boydell's illustrations were based upon a painted image--all 167 of them.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act V, Scene IV. A Forest, Angelica Kauffmann, R. A.--the only woman artist involved
in Boydell's Shakespearean enterprise.

Shakespeare Attended by
Painting and Poetry,
c. 1789, Thomas Banks
William Shakespeare penned some thirty-eight plays, with Henry VI (Part 2) being the first, dating from about 1591. He would have been twenty-seven at the time. Henry VI (Parts 1 and 3 also date from 1591 but were not written in chronological order). As tricky as it is to attach definite dates to Shake-speare's plays, ascertaining even approx-imate dates of paintings and etching by dozens of artists based upon them is near impossible. Boydell's collection of published etchings was put together over a period of ten or twelve years. Many of the artists were among the most outstanding England had to offer. However, many others were not. They were hurriedly commissioned to flesh out the lesser plays and were far below par. Critics took notice. As a result, Boydell's private art museum and publishing effort became insol-vent in 1803.

The lower image by Stothard from around 1800, does
not depict a particular scene but was one of the first
to depict Shakespeare's characters. The upper
image is from the 19th-century.
Macbeth Consulting the
Vision of the Armed Head,
1793, Henry Fuseli
In the years following Shakespeare's death, his literary stature grew, but the popularity of his work declined for most of the 18th-century. Boydell's misguided ef-fort, along with the paintings of artists he employed, such a Sir Joshua Reynold, and Angelica Kauffmann, helped to revive Shakespeare's reputation, not to mention the demand for Shakespearean art. How-ever it mostly through the efforts of the man below, actor/producer/playwright/po-et, David Garrick that Shakespeare's plays and their popularity endured. Be-sides the lead role in Richard III, Garrick also took on Shakespeare's King Lear, and in 1743 added Hamlet to his re-pertoire. Then In 1769, Garrick staged the Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon. It was a major focal point in cementing Shakespeare as England's national poet. The festival involved a number of events held in the town to celebrate (five years too late) 200 years since Shakespeare's birth. Ironically, no Shakespeare plays were performed during the Ju-bilee, and heavy rain forced a Shakespeare Pageant to be called off. The Pageant was later staged at the Drury Lane Theatre under the title, The Jubilee. It proved successful through some 90 performances.

William Hogarth's portrait of David Garrick as Richard III dates from 1745.
Children acting the play scene
from Hamlet, 1863, Charles Hunt

Falstaff in the Laundry Basket,
John Henry Fuseli



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