“While these visions did appear”: Shakespeare on Canvas

Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Sunday, July 29, 2012

“While these visions did appear,” a selection of Shakespearian subjects drawn from the Center’s permanent collection of paintings, formed part of Yale’s university-wide celebration of the works of William Shakespeare (1564–1616). This display focused primarily on depictions of Shakespeare’s comedies, but also touched on comedic elements from the tragedies and histories, and encouraged consideration of the multifaceted ways—verbal and visual—in which Shakespeare’s plays have inspired painters and audiences alike.

Artists and patrons in the eighteenth century responded to and encouraged the assertion of Shakespeare as Britain’s foremost national playwright. Through the remarkable efforts of David Garrick, the actor and Drury Lane theater manager, the plays flourished on the stage, while the promotion of the playwright as the “immortal bard” was seized as an opportunity to foster a British school of history painting.

Combining commerce and connoisseurship, entrepreneurial publishers like John “Alderman” Boydell and James Woodmason commissioned works such as a scene from Twelfth Night by Johann Heinrich Ramberg, and Francis Wheatley’s scene from The Two Gentlemen of Verona, respectively, creating what amounted to a new genre: the Shakespearean conversation piece. Strategies of representation included the depiction of famous actors and actresses in favored roles, such as Benjamin van der Gucht’s portrait of actor Henry Woodward in the role of Petruchio in David Garrick’s adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, and James Northcote’s portrait of the child actor William Henry West Betty in the role of Hamlet. Other compositions, destined to be illustrations for new print editions of Shakespeare’s plays, depict characters in pivotal dramatic moments, such as Phillippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg’s portrait of Falstaff from Henry IV.

Unknown artist, Procession of Characters from Shakespeare's Plays (detail), ca. 1840, oil on board, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund

By the 1830s the project to secure Shakespeare’s national and historical significance essentially had been completed. The plays continued to thrive on the stage in humble and lavish productions, but in the visual arts they also provided an opportunity to indulge in realms of fantasy, in which artists ruminated as much on character and mood as on the depiction of identifiable scenes, a shift in representation more closely associated with the personal experience of reading than the shared spectacle of theater. Similarly, Shakespearian subject matter lent propriety to fanciful compositions such as Joseph Noel Paton’s and Thomas Stothard’s imaginative treatments of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, James Smetham’s portrayal of the sleeping Imogen from Cymbeline, and the illustrator George Cruikshank’s rare and ebullient paintings The First Appearance of William Shakespeare on the Stage of the Globe Theatre and Herne’s Oak from “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” These works helped to fashion a culture in which Shakespeare, according to the poet Robert Browning, was in Victorians’ “very bones and blood.”

“While these visions did appear” was curated by Eleanor Hughes, Associate Curator and Head of Exhibitions and Publications, and Christina Smylitopoulos, Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Exhibitions and Publications at the Center.