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Painting Shakespeare: The Artist as Critic, 1720-1820
Stuart Sillars

[2006] Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006
337 pp. 16 colour pl. ISBN-10: 0521853087


Reviewed by Samuel Baudry



Lord Thurlow’s suggestion to George Romney—“before you paint Shakespeare I advise you to read him” [133]—could serve as an indirect gloss on Stuart Sillar’s study: before reading Shakespeare we would be well advised to look closely at the paintings he inspired. The opening of the Boydell Gallery in 1789 is the acme and turning point of several decades of passionate interchange between painters who chose Shakespearean themes, readers and editors of Shakespeare’s texts and actors and spectators of Shakespeare’s plays. This collection, which gathered paintings from almost every living painter in Britain [259], marks the triumph of sugary sentimentality (Edward V and the Duke of York tenderly embracing just before being murdered in Northcote’s Richard III [267]), commercial opportunism (Emma Hart as Cassandra in Romney’s  Cassandra Raving [137], engraved, printed and sold throughout the next century) and Tory historicism (Shakespeare is consecrated as the “National Bard” [17] and is drawn on as the chronicler of English progress under stable kings, queens and parliament [270]). The paintings were disposed of in 1805 and this was the end of a most exciting period of “visual criticism” (the expression was coined by W. Moelwyn Merchant in Shakespeare and the Artist [30]). But this was not the end of Shakespeare criticism: Sillars’s main argument here is that what happened during the 18th century between Shakespeare’s texts, the painters who represented them and the public who saw and discussed their works, establishes a critical relationship which reappears in a purely linguistic form in the 20th as our literary criticism (in Bradley’s 1904 Lectures, for instance [5]). This study recounts how some of the most pervasive methods of modern (post 1950’s) criticism first appeared during the Enlightenment. Chronologically, this is what happened: at the end of the 17th century, in a context where engravings—of any subject—had gained widespread diffusion and popularity, critical discussion of images became a familiar practice. During the 18th century, in an attempt to elevate both English painting and Shakespeare’s significance, Shakespeare’s plays became a favourite subject for many painters. The paintings, in turn, encouraged a critical discussion of the plays. What these painters did through their representations of the plays was later done by critics in their analyses of the plays. Sillars, as the subtitle clearly signals, is mostly concerned with the method and the result of visual criticism: how the artist says things about the text and what he or she says. This study also deals with an important by-product of all this pre-historical (unwritten) criticism: the influence of the literary texts on the painters, how they modified their art.

The ten chapters are roughly chronological. In the 1730’s, Hogarth introduced successful narrative techniques into his paintings and sketches of Shakespeare’s historical plays. At the same time, the growing popularity of landscape painting helped to free the representations of Shakespeare’s plays from the stage and allowed for several scenes to be depicted at once. The fourth and eighth chapters are both devoted to Fuseli: first, his knowledge of antique and renaissance masters created complex allusive interplays in his own paintings; later, his reliance on contemporary Gothic themes catered for more popular tastes. Romney, if less sophisticated in his readings than Blake or Fuseli, was nevertheless most sensitive to contemporary aesthetic arguments: Lear in Lear Awakening from Madness is a dark and dishevelled romantic prophet; his daughter, sitting on the bed next to him, is a linear Neoclassical statue [140]. Romney’s late drawings point towards Turner and Impressionism. Blake moves one step further in his appropriation of Shakespearean themes to elaborate literary criticism: he recycles them to support his own mythology. Even more pungently than Romney, Reynolds was torn between two moods: his academic Discourses and the threatening moral ambiguities of his own paintings. The last chapter takes stock of how debased and uncritical later images were, compared to those of Josiah Boydell’s short-lived scheme—one of the reasons for this decline might be that they were no longer separate plates but were cut in the text [301]. The Boydell Shakespeare Gallery itself is treated in the penultimate chapter, though most of the paintings presented there are considered individually in the preceding chapters.

The quality and the choice of the black and white figures and of the coloured plates are outstanding and have already been commented upon by Michael Dobson. In his review of the book (Shakespeare Quarterly, vol 58, n°1, spring 2007, 135-37), Dobson underlines the strength, the possible exaggerations and the partial blindness of Sillars’s close reading of the images, but the main contention of this book—that the painters were proto-critics—remains to be investigated.

The critical argument between the images and the plays is usually asserted through allusions to other, usually older, paintings (Sillars also explores alternative forms of dialogue between images and text: irony [212], manipulation of the viewer’s point of view [237, 277], and sequential juxtaposition of different renderings of the same plays [309]). In a sketch showing Claudius pouring poison in the ear of his brother (Hamlet, King of Denmark, poisoned by his brother Claudius while sleeping in the garden [plate 5]), Fuseli closely follows the composition of an Etruscan vase painting representing a Pederastic scene with spectators [106] and models his characters on them, thus adding a layer of meaning to his own image that spells out for the spectator the sexually ambiguous atmosphere of the play. He underscores the domineering relation of Old Hamlet (sitting like the ithyphallic older man on the vase) towards the giton-like Claudius (the young figure about to climb on the chair), and Gertrude’s fascination with the violence she condones (eyes downcast in the painting, but occupying the place of the “spectators” on the vase). The allusions are often clearly identifiable when thus presented in the book, but their general diffusion among viewers, which alone can provide the critical link, is sometimes doubtful. On the other hand, Sillars occasionally misses possible, and possibly more obvious, references. He very effectively parallels Fuseli’s painting of Queen Katherine—Henry VIII’s divorced wife—with Titian’s Venus and Cupid with an Organist [118-19]; but the latter is not the former’s “single iconographic source” [119]. Two more can be traced: Titian’s second painting of the same subject (Venus and Cupid with an Organist, c. 1548-49, Gemaeldegalerie, Berlin) and Titian’s painting of Danae (Danae and the Shower of Gold, 1554, Museo del Prado, Madrid), whose posture clearly echoes that of Katherine—the rain of gold transformed into a circle of naked “spirits of peace.”

What this proto-criticism reveals about the text is what close-reading and deconstructionism later and more systematically attempted: to make more explicit what is not immediately obvious to the reader and to reveal the discrepancies and the ambiguities destabilizing the text (Yet sometimes the image limits, bowdlerizes or betrays the meanings of the plays [286] and turns their dialogical fertility into narrative plainness [264-65]). The explicitation suggested by the painting can be a general “statement of the forces that drive the play” [52], like the sexual urges of the characters in Fuseli’s Hamlet.  It can detail a crucial moment on which the course the play hangs, as the quotations of the “choice of Hercules” trope often do [6]. It can also focus on one aspect of a single character: Macbeth, in Reynold’s Macbeth and the Witches, borrowing his gesture  from Leonardo’s Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist, is shown as “the moral opposite of John the Baptist” [205], one who announces the end of a line of kings.

Ambiguities of tone that no critic will explore before the mid-twentieth century can be revealed visually: Puck’s playfulness—mischievous and fat as a putto—in the centre of Reynold’s A Wood—Robin Goodfellow (Puck) [207], is counterbalanced by the two sleeping figures of Titiana and Bottom at the rear, whose fulfilled and luxuriant attitudes are reminiscent of Reynold’s own Death of Dido. To the comedy of love and errors are added the tragic undertones of abandon and suicide: “serious, fatal contingencies within comic performances” [212]. Ambivalent characters, whose ambiguities eschew Manichean oppositions, can be exposed in all their complexity: through a rich system of allusions, to the Sistine Chapel and to Paradise Lost, Prospero and Caliban—in Fuseli’s Tempest [plate 13]—become interdependent and share the same powers and desires both for good and evil [238-39].

Painting, and more precisely British painting, had a lot to gain from such elaborate realizations. The celebration of Shakespeare’s untamed genius in the enlightened 18th century was indeed a very effective nationalistic mechanism. Thanks to the recycling of well-known classical tropes, his characters and stories were granted the same dignity as those taken from antique mythology or the Bible. The painters elevated Shakespearean subjects by linking them to those of the Old Masters. For instance, James Barry, in King Lear Weeping over the Body of Cordelia, alludes to the renaissance trope of the deposition and turns Cordelia’s death into an unredeeming crucifixion [91-92].

This thematic elevation was completed by stylistic reclaim: Shakespeare’s wild, uncultivated language was the prime example of the “freedom of the English spirit” [16] and British painters would try to appropriate his creative vigour in order to move beyond their classical models and to establish a National style [17, 50]. If we overlook the tawdry engravings and preposterous paintings that form a non-negligible part of the images presented, and if we focus rather on the sketches and the drawings, we have to admit that, to some extent, they succeeded in this renovating endeavour. We should nevertheless keep in mind that this is not true of most of the images that were printed and sold. To measure the expurgating effect of commercial engravings, one can compare Fuseli’s wash-drawing of Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet to Leney’s engraved version of the scene [124-25]: the erotic and ironic game of power has been turned into a sentimental and paternalistic embrace.

First and foremost, landscape painting, the most insular accomplishment of British romantic art, although it was not exclusively linked to the tradition studied here, benefited a great deal from the dignified role of the Shakespearean landscape. But trying to deal with the paradox of representing fluid, multiple—and often supernatural—actions on a canvas also encouraged some stylistic innovations which can be seen as the forerunners of some the 19th and 20th c. artistic movements. In some of his quasi-abstract wash-drawings ([146-52], particularly in the one entitled A Foregathering of the Witches [151]), Romney translates the scenes of Macbeth or The Tempest into maelstroms of pure colour and violent brush sweeps which dispense with traditional perspective and blur the distinction between landscape and characters, between background and foreground. Blake’s literal representations of Shakespeare’s images [plate 10, 163-66] result in visual montages of clashing elements, teasing but ultimately undecipherable: a process of defamiliarisation later developed by the surrealists.

Sillars masterfully demonstrates how some painters did produce powerful readings of Shakespeare’s oeuvre: illuminating its meaning and refreshing their own pictorial practice. But he does so with a critical insight that does not come merely from the paintings—that comes indeed from a critical tradition born in the 20th century and whose connection with 18th century representations of Shakespeare remains undocumented (it is not only, as Sillars explains, a question of putting what the readers felt into words [14]). These images did not influence the reception of Shakespeare then (“Why […] did so much of the witty and critical reference of the Shakespeare paintings remain unnoticed?” [214]); it is the other way round: thanks to modern criticism, we can detect highly personal criticism in effectively isolated readings of Shakespeare in the work of some artists from the 18th and 19th centuries—Sillars’s posture is somewhat anachronistic. His study is nevertheless a powerful reminder of the various uses, aesthetic as well political, to which Shakespeare was put during the Enlightenment and the Romantic age: chronicler of national history, commentator on contemporary society, inspirer of independent art.




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