Shakespeare’s preeminence as a dramatist is today unquestioned, but after his death (in 1616), it took time for that reputation to be established. Artists began to engage with the plays only in the early eighteenth century, and first steps were modest—small engraved frontispieces created to embellish new English editions by Nicholas Rowe (1709) and Lewis Theobald (1740). More ambitious images followed when David Garrick took the London stage by storm in the 1740s—his bravura acting as Richard III and King Lear stimulating paintings by William Hogarth (32.35(238)) and Benjamin Wilson (17.3.911). As manager of the Drury Lane Theatre between 1749 and 1777, Garrick helped turn the Bard into a national obsession, a status confirmed by the Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769. That three-day celebration at Stratford-upon-Avon centered on the unveiling of a new statue and declamation of an ode by Garrick—both painted by Robert Edge Pine, who exhibited his work in London in 1782 together with six additional Shakespearean subjects, all subsequently engraved (53.600.4490; 53.600.4488).
When George III came to the throne in 1760, themes with a British resonance assumed a new significance. As the first Hanoverian monarch actually born and raised in England, the king encouraged patriotic imagery and, in 1768, agreed to become patron to a new Royal Academy of Arts. Dedicated to training students and holding annual exhibitions of its members’ work, that institution also welcomed foreign-born members. Originally from Zurich, Henry Fuseli settled in London in 1779 and became an enthusiastic academician and promoter of Shakespeare, devising wild, poetic images centered on Hamlet (42.119.545), Macbeth (59.570.361), King Lear, and Falstaff. Another significant overseas arrival was Benjamin West, who came from colonial Pennsylvania via Rome. Lauded as a self-taught artistic phenomenon, West was appointed historical painter to the king in 1772. The latter post did not deter him from depicting King Lear in ways that mirror George’s own struggles with madness and rebellious children (62.557.175; 24.63.1869).
Shakespeare also offered rich potential for artists who worked outside the mainstream, notably William Blake and John Hamilton Mortimer. When most of his fellows at the Society of Arts decamped for the Royal Academy in 1768, Mortimer remained at the independent, increasingly republican, Society and etched Twelve Characters from Shakespeare in 1775–76. These expressive imaginary portraits of Richard II (62.602.162), Ophelia (62.557.202), Shylock, Caliban, and other characters explore a subtle range of tragic emotions and use quotes from the plays to point out the instability of royal power and social position. Blake exhibited drawings at the Academy as a young man but, once established as a professional engraver, was not eligible for membership. Independently, he created powerfully experimental color prints such as Pity (58.603), a work inspired by Macbeth. Avoiding obvious reference to the action or characters of the play, the image uses symbolic figures to embody Macbeth’s tortured contemplation of regicide.
The Bard’s firm hold on the British imagination in the late eighteenth century is demonstrated by the Shakespeare Gallery. Launched in 1786 by the successful London print publisher John Boydell, this exhibition-cum-publishing scheme commissioned approximately 170 paintings from leading and lesser artists, and displayed them in a space on Pall Mall close to St. James’s Palace and popular gentlemen’s clubs. Visitors were charged a shilling’s admittance, and subscribers to reproductive engravings based on the paintings helped to fund the enterprise. Keeping the prints to a high standard and timely publishing schedule proved difficult, but ultimately it was Napoleon’s blockade of European ports that forced the gallery into bankruptcy in 1804 by cutting off income from the Continent. Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Romney (49.49.3), James Barry (42.119.528), West (24.63.1869), and Fuseli (42.119.545) all worked for Boydell, approaching their subjects as history painting and avoiding overt reference to the stage. The finest compositions elucidate, rather than simply illustrate, scenes from the plays, and the overall project underscores the growing significance of reproductive prints as a source of income for both artists and publishers.
France warmed to Shakespeare slowly, with artists showing no interest in subjects from the plays before the Romantic period. Before 1800, stringent theatrical codes led critics such as Voltaire to deride the Bard for mixing high tragedy with low comedy, and poor French translations offered little counter argument. Things began to change in 1803, when the great actor François-Joseph Talma performed Hamlet for Napoleon, then staged Macbeth and Othello at the Comédie-Française. The ice was truly broken in 1827, when the Theâtre-Anglais—a troupe led by Charles Kemble, Edmund Kean, and Harriet Smithson—treated Parisians to a season of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet acted in English with compelling naturalism. Delacroix’s long obsession with the Prince of Denmark began around this time, leading him to produce paintings and a set of thirteen lithographs between 1834 and 1843 (22.56.6; 22.56.16). At once romantic and realistic, these emotionally raw images characterize Hamlet as a complex individual who struggles to make sense of perplexing events. Following Delacroix’s achievement, the young Théodore Chassériau was commissioned in 1844 by the publisher–art historian Eugène Piot to etch fifteen subjects from Othello (64.599.2; 32.7.14). Concentrating on later scenes, these prints weave a devastating picture of the cumulative effects of irrational jealousy.
By the mid-nineteenth century, art devoted to Shakespeare was an international phenomenon. Paintings treating the plays or representing actors in character were exhibited in Britain, Germany, France, and America; innumerable reproductive prints circulated; and illustrated editions of the plays were available in several languages. Fuseli’s distinct vision was admired in Germany, influencing young Romantics such as Adam Vogler (2011.452), who knew the originals through engravings. In London, an 1843 competition for murals to decorate the new Houses of Parliament attracted 140 submissions, twelve of them Shakespearean subjects. That same decade, the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel created a Shakespeare Room in his London house adorned with paintings by Charles Robert Leslie, Clarkson Stanfield, and Sir Edwin Landseer—the latter contributing a mesmerizing fairy subject from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (47.30.46). The Pre-Raphaelites created some of the most compelling Shakespearean images of the period, notably John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, whose flattened perspective and hyper-realistic detail confused critics in 1852 but came to be admired and engraved (49.40.282). Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Study for “Mariana” (47.66) centers on a minor character in Measure for Measure who inspired a poem by Alfred Tennyson. Using the unconventional beauty of his muse Jane Morris, Rossetti devised a pose that communicates boredom and erotic frustration. In the following decades, subject painters such as Daniel Maclise and John William Waterhouse often turned to Shakespeare. Maclise set dramatic moments within richly detailed environments, and Waterhouse evoked the emotions of Ophelia and Miranda through lush landscapes—approaches effectively used by Frederic Leighton and Lawrence Alma-Tadema around this time to bring ancient Greece and Rome to life.
By 1900, the curtain was falling on grand historical-theatrical painting, a tradition stimulated by Garrick’s stage innovations in the 1740s, encouraged by the patronage of Boydell, and perfected by the Victorians. Edwin Austin Abbey’s 1898 King Lear, Act I, Scene 1 (13.140) is a fine late example, where ominous gestures within a claustrophobic format infuse a colorful court pageant with foreboding. By the 1920s, a sparer, graphic vision had taken hold, represented by John Austen’s elegant illustrations to Hamlet: Prince of Denmark (66.540.37). Even more radical are small woodcuts of Hamlet (24.65.2) and Ophelia (24.65.3) made by Edward Gordon Craig around 1910. As the son of the great actress Ellen Terry, Craig began his career on the boards, then turned to design and printmaking. A member of an international avant-garde theatrical circle, Craig was introduced by his lover, Isadora Duncan, to the director Constantin Stanislavski. In 1908, the latter invited Craig to design a new Hamlet for the Moscow Art Theatre, with the resulting 1912 production now hailed as the first significant modern staging of Shakespeare. To demonstrate his unconventional ideas to the company, Craig carved wooden characters and built model sets, then realized he could print the figures. The resulting woodcuts buzz with a primitive energy that echoes contemporary work by Emil Nolde and Vasily Kandinsky, signaling new directions for Shakespeare and art.
McPhee, Constance C. “Shakespeare and Art, 1709–1922.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/shaa/hd_shaa.htm (November 2016)
Faberman, Hilarie, and Philip McEvansoneya. “Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s ‘Shakespeare Room.’” Burlington Magazine 137 (February 1995), pp. 108–18.
Martineau, Jane, et al. Shakespeare in Art. Exh. cat. Dulwich: Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2003.
Sillars, Stuart. The Illustrated Shakespeare, 1709–1875. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Sillars, Stuart. Painting Shakespeare: The Artist as Critic, 1720–1820. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Whitfield, Peter. Illustrating Shakespeare. London: The British Library, 2013.