Painting Shakespeare: The Artist as Critic, 1720-1820

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Painting Shakespeare explores the tradition of critical and interpretive painting and engraving that developed when eighteenth-century artists rejected the depiction of Shakespeare's plays in performance to produce images based on the new scholarly editions. The opening chapter locates Shakespeare painting alongside contemporary performance, editing and criticism, and discusses its relation to art history and practice. The book proceeds to examine Hogarth's use of ironic allusion, and the development of this and other techniques of critical visualisation by artists of the succeeding decades. Later chapters discuss the arcane allusions and supernatural visions of Fuseli, the gestural immediacy of Romney, the fluid, critical mythologising of Blake, and the compound subtleties of Reynolds. The book concludes with a study of the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery and the radically new reading practices it constituted.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"… artists may be critics, but they do not speak for themselves; Stuart Sillars gives them some extremely interesting language."
-Times Literary Supplement

"…a scholarly and thorough account … wisely acknowledging both the vastness of the subject and the important work already done in this area. Sillars negotiates the difficulties of drawing together many threads of research well … makes for an engaging and compelling read … the author's passion for his subject is most apparent and he is at his most engaging. Sillars' readings are both sympathetic and sensitive, displaying a wealth of knowledge and depth of research."
-Shakespeare Bookshop Newsletter

"Anyone at all interested in this important aspect of Shakespeare studies will find the book immensely valuable and, indeed, an incentive for further research."
-Jay Halio, Shakespeare Newsletter

"… undoubtedly the best sustained piece of scholarly work to date on eighteenth-century ad Romantic uses of Shakespeare in the visual arts."
-Michael Dobson, Shakespeare Quarterly

"This fascinating study gives inexhaustible hints and a fresh impetus to modern readers and theatre-goers for understanding Shakespeare more deeply in wider contexts of art and literature. The book undoubtedly deserves its unique place in art history and Shakespeare studies."
-Shakespeare Studies

"Sillars masterfully demonstrates how some painters did produce powerful readings of Shakespeare’s oeuvre: illuminating its meaning and refreshing their own pictorial practice...a powerful reminder of the various uses, aesthetic as well political, to which Shakespeare was put during the Enlightenment and the Romantic age..."
-Samuel Baudry, Cercles

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521853088
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 1/31/2006
  • Pages: 356
  • Product dimensions: 7.44 (w) x 9.69 (h) x 1.02 (d)

Meet the Author

Currently Professor of English at the University of Bergen, Stuart Sillars was previously a member of the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge, and has been a visiting professor at universities in Texas, Washington and Croatia. He has written extensively on the relationship between literature and the visual arts, with books including Art and Survival in First World War Britain (1987) and British Romantic Art and the Second World War (1991), and has had many articles and reviews published in major journals in the UK, Europe and the USA.

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Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
0521853087 - Painting Shakespeare - The Artist as Critic - 1720-1820 - by Stuart Sillars



In 1750 John Wootton, an artist with a small but honourable reputation for sport- ing paintings and landscapes in the style of Gaspard Dughet, painted Macbeth and Banquo meeting the Weird Sisters (Plate 1).1 The circumstances under which it was produced are unclear, but its size (152.5 × 146 cm, or 60 × 57 in) and what little is known of its provenance2 suggest a commission from a relatively wealthy individual, probably not from the highest financial or social rank, who wished to display it as part of his private collection. That Wootton was a friend of Pope, Gay and Prior, all of whom owned examples of his work, might explain the literary nature of the painting, although this needs to be seen within the larger context of the burgeoning interest in Shakespeare through performance and textual editing, and as representative of the instinctive, untutored power that was the essence of the national imagination. The painting's date places it at a time when these movements had begun to gain significant momentum. Theobald's Shakespeare Restored of 17263 and his edition of the plays in 17334 had begun the attempt to recover an original, authentic text that was to drive Shakespeare editing for the rest of the century, and marked the beginning of a split between a reading and a performance practice. When Garrick revived Macbeth in 1744 after its absence from the stage since 1671, he claimed to present it 'as written by Shakespeare',5 but nonetheless retained some of the songs added by Davenant and omitted the porter scene and various other passages deemed unsuited to contemporary tastes. There was as yet very little that could be termed critical writing. John Dennis, following Dryden, had continued the process of freeing the 'naturally learn'd'6 Shakespeare from unfavourable comparison with the Ancients, with assertions resting on general principles; Johnson had published a pamphlet on Macbeth in 1745 which discussed individual passages.7 The work of Murphy, Farmer and Montagu was still some years off, and the establishment of an apparatus criticus of the sort assumed by present-day readers would take several generations.

In Wootton's painting the figures of Macbeth, Banquo and the witches are placed within a naturalistic scene that owes much to the conventions of European landscape painting. The windswept trees and extreme chiaroscuro, light almost overcome by darkness spreading from the left of the canvas, draw on Gaspard Dughet; the rocks framing the witches' cave to the right echo the stone formations of Salvator Rosa. The relation between the figures and the landscape resembles that found in Poussin, not only as Michael Bellamy has remarked8 in terms of their scale but also because of the way they are arranged to suggest a narrative progress that recedes into the space of the painting. The reader's eye is led across from the two central figures to the horse that turns its head towards them from the left, and then by the curve of its body to the second horse, which in turn leads the eye back to the line of figures in the middle distance. From this movement the reader identifies the horses of Macbeth and Banquo being held by their grooms and the line of troops returning from battle, to locate the events within the play's third scene.

This narrative presentation suggests that the image grows out of an art historical rather than a theatric frame of reference. For reasons that will shortly become clear, Wootton's setting departs from both Shakespeare's 'heath' (1.1.7)9 and the 'open Place' and '1st Grove' of Garrick's prompt book,10 but imports the witches' cave from Act Ⅳ. The thunder and lightning that Garrick stipulates are absent. Wootton's Macbeth and Banquo combine the dress of classical soldier and Scots warrior, whereas Garrick's costume for the role was his customary eighteenth-century court dress, Macklin being the first to attempt something closer to authentic Scottish costume. The witches' high-crowned hats could draw on Garrick's production, as could the headgear of the central figure, which suggests the 'torn mobs' worn in his production, but the absence of 'blue-checked aprons' and broomsticks suggests a freer interpretation of the roles.11 Perhaps the gesture of Macbeth recalls Garrick's pose of recoil familiar from other images, such as Benjamin Wilson's painting from 1754 recording the encounter with the ghost in Hamlet;12 but the presence of the staff instead of the open palm with spread fingers argues against this. That the open hand was also described as showing horror and dismay in the Conférence de M. Le Brun sur l'expression générale et particulière, the handbook of ready-made gestures and expressions that was influential in the earlier eighteenth-century theatre,13 suggests that it, too, was a source avoided by Wootton. All this points away from the theatre and towards an imaginative reading of the text - and Shakespeare's text, perhaps as available in Theobald's edition, rather than the adaptations of Davenant or Garrick - as the basis of the painting's invention, in dialogue with conventions taken from the practices of landscape and narrative painting. Little is known about Wootton, so that it is impossible to determine a factor that will be important for later Shakespeare painters: the way in which the artist's knowledge was acquired, most particularly which edition was used as the basis for visual presentation. It is quite clear, however, that the painting rests on detailed study of the printed text rather than an acquaintance gained from the theatre.

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1 Paolo de Matteis, The Choice of Hercules. Engraved by Simon Gribelin, 1714.

In translating the temporal unfolding of the play to the spatial presentation of the painting, Wootton employs not only the recessional forms borrowed from Nicolas Poussin, but also a compositional element that had recently become fashionable in English history painting. The principal characters of the image are presented within a trope known as the Choice of Hercules, used in many Renaissance paintings and made popular by the Earl of Shaftesbury in an influential essay on the production of narrative in painting published in 1713,14 supported by a painting that Shaftesbury commissioned from Paolo de Matteis (Fig. 1.)15 The essay argues that the moment of selecting virtue over pleasure contains all the greatness of the hero's future life; in adopting and adapting the same figure, Wootton follows the essay's advice in narrative terms but neatly inverts the moral implication by showing the moment when Macbeth turns away from the honest, doubting Banquo towards the witches. Not only is there a physical reversal of the Hercules trope, Macbeth turning in the opposite direction to reject virtue; the allusion is deeply ironic in positing an equivalence with this earlier moment of moral crisis that is far more benevolent in outcome.

Wootton supplements the presentation of the moment of choice by implying its results through another technique suggested by Shaftesbury: the use of emblematic detail to suggest future events. These are set within a larger telescoping of events, in the inclusion of the witches' cavern from Act 4. Inside it may be seen the shape of the 'brindled cat' referred to by the First Witch (4.1.1); perched above is a magpie, recalling the 'maggot-pies' that Macbeth mentions as ill omens (3.4.125). Next to it sits an owl, 'the fatal bellman' (2.2.3) that shrieks before the death of Duncan, the 'mousing owl' (2.4.13) whose unnatural killing of a falcon is recorded by the Old Man, and itself the predator against which 'the poor wren/ The most diminutive of birds, will fight' (4.2.9-10). The inclusion of these figures, quite naturalistic within the darkening landscape, extends the breadth of the image and reveals the scope of evil that Macbeth embraces as he turns towards the witches.

Another detail is used to broaden the painting's reference through an allusion to a later passage of the play that brings with it associations of darkness and the rebellion of nature against Macbeth's crimes. Almost at the centre of the painting, silhouetted against the cloud, two dark birds are shown flying towards the trees. They recall words from Macbeth's pivotal speech in Act 3:

Light thickens,
And the crow makes wing to th' rooky wood;
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
While night's black agents to their preys do rouse.


In presenting the crows flying towards the wood, paralleling Macbeth's movement towards the witches, the painting shows the play's descent into evil signalled in this speech just before the murder of Banquo. The birds also reveal themselves as part of another essential aspect of the image's visual reading of the play: its emphasis on landscape. The shift into darkness, so common a feature in the baroque landscapes of Rosa, is here instilled with a more immediate critical purpose, revealing itself as a reading of the function of the dark landscape as a moral dimension of the play's movement. The tree blown back on itself at the right is a statement of the many references to the storm on the night of the murder which, like all the images of revolted nature, are the result of the murder and are 'unnatural,/ Even like the deed that's done' (2.4.10-11). The broken tree in the left foreground provides a focus for the insinuations of destruction and reversal of nature that climax in Macbeth's plea to the witches to answer his questions regardless of the consequence: 'Though you untie the winds . . . Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down' (4.1.51, 54). Seen thus, it anticipates the climax of the same speech that reveals the collapse of natural order when 'the treasure/ Of nature's germen tumble altogether/ Even till destruction sicken' (4.1.57-9). The landscape, the essential feature of the collapse of the play's moral world into what Lady Macbeth calls 'the blanket of the dark' (1.5.51), is powerfully visualised in Wootton's painting. This is far more than a representation of any stage setting. Just as the Choice of Hercules trope is appropriated from Old Master tradition and more recent theoretical debate, so the atmospheric landscape of Rosa and Gaspard Dughet is turned into a major critical reading of the play's direction. Added to the specific details of the birds and the inclusion of the witches' cave to convey future events, it confirms the function of the painting: far more than a simple representation, this is an image that narrates the play's pivotal moment of action and mediates its larger movement of language and morality to offer a consistent and suggestive critical reading.

Wootton's painting is an early example of a discursive medium increasingly significant during the eighteenth century: the visual image that offers a critical reading of one of the plays of Shakespeare. This it does in three linked ways. It stresses the collapse of Macbeth's moral universe as implicit within the first meeting with the witches; it suggests later events by the use of emblematic detail in the presence of the owl, magpie and crows; and it visualises the language of the disturbance of the natural world and its order. Today familiar from critical scrutiny over many generations, these textual operations were not discussed in explicit terms until much later: it was probably Bradley, for example, who first drew attention to the function of landscape in the text's moral trajectory, in a critical text founded on structural analyses in which the influence of painting, and perhaps even performance, was minimal.16 Wootton's painting makes these critical points with striking visual immediacy a hundred and forty years before Bradley lectured on Macbeth, and in this it is representative of the special power of eighteenth-century Shakespeare painting. It is the recovery of this tradition that is the purpose of this book.


That Wootton's painting was capable of sustaining a reading of such depth for its contemporary viewers is explained by the tradition of narrative in the theory of painting on which it rests. If the critical analysis of Shakespeare's language was at best embryonic in the mid-eighteenth century, the practice of analysing the composition of paintings and the way that it influenced meaning, especially in the presentation of narrative, was increasingly the subject of theoretical discussions that determined both how paintings were produced and how they were read. Early in the century the discussion of the theory of painting in terms of its aesthetic identity, procedures and meanings began to establish itself as a significant discourse within the larger debate around the nature of taste. Historical painting, based on the sculptural practice of the ancient Greeks and Romans, often as transmitted by Renaissance Old Masters, was regarded as the highest form of art. From it developed both the Grand Style and the related vogue for paintings of events in British history. Images of literary narratives, from Greek, Roman and English texts, were given similar weight; and, with the canonisation of Shakespeare as the national genius, the visual treatment of the plays became a major concern. The development of a precise theoretical basis by the preceding generation meant that when Wootton painted Macbeth there was both a clear set of procedures for the artist to follow and a body of educated readers to decode and interpret the image.

Wootton's painting has already disclosed the effects of the seminal work in the theoretical tradition, the Earl of Shaftesbury's A Notion of the Historical Draught or Tablature of the Judgement of Hercules (1713), which should be read in conjunction with the painting commissioned by its author and which, in an engraving by Simon Gribelin (see Fig. 1), was included in the second edition of 1714. Shaftesbury begins by stressing the importance of presenting 'one single Intelligence, or Design' (p. 4), an approach fundamental to the visual treatment of the plays in asserting the dominance of a concept uniting composition, narrative and theme. Shaftesbury is, however, most concerned with the moment of the narrative sequence that is selected for depiction. Arguing closely from the Choice trope, he defines three possibilities: the initial meeting between Hercules, Pleasure and Virtue; the moment 'when they are enter'd on their Disputes' (p. 6); and the moment 'when Virtue seems to gain her Cause' (p. 6). Of these he finds the last the most effective because it contains the fullest implications of event and character, expressing as it does 'the Grand Event, or consequent Resolution of HERCULES' (p. 6) and thus encompassing the moral significance and implicit consequences of the choice. Depiction of earlier events is rejected as productive of 'a mere confus'd heap', but the suggestion of later happenings in the use of emblems, as in Wootton's painting, is treated more sympathetically:

It may however be allowable, on some occasions, to make use of certain Enigmatical or Emblematical Devices, to represent future Time.

(p. 9)

This would have had clear resonance for educated readers. 'Emblematical devices' are the visual embodiment of virtues or attributes that depend on traditions of presentation that in some instances date back to Judaeo-Christian images, formalised in medieval and Renaissance painting and catalogued in the emblem books fashionable in the 1590s. The most widely read, Cesare Ripa's Iconologia, remained in print in new editions throughout the eighteenth century, with new illustrations, giving practical enactment to Shaftesbury's concept.17

What Shaftesbury establishes in specific terms, Jonathan Richardson makes both more general and more widely accessible in his Essay on the Theory of Painting (1715),18 Essay on the Whole Art of Criticism as it Relates to Painting and the Science of the Connoisseur (1719). These explain both the qualities of paintings themselves and the attributes needed in those wishing fully to interpret and evaluate them. Significantly, Richardson's discussion of painting makes no distinction between the presentation of historical events and that of literary texts, exploring them interchangeably as examples of the visual mediation of sequential events. Arguing in the Theory of Painting that the immediacy of the art remedies the defects of language, Richardson allows the painter the 'liberty of heightening' (p. 13) in adding or deleting details or circumstances, and the freedom 'sometimes to depart even from Natural, and Historical truth' (p. 49) to clarify a larger principle - thus implicitly allowing the possibility of critical interpretation. Shaftesbury's detailed discussion of the selection of a moment is simplified into the advice that it should contain 'That in the Story which is the most Advantageous' (p. 53), supported by an Aristotelian assertion of the centrality of a 'Unity of Time' (p. 56) stated visually by the 'Principal Action in a Picture'(p. 56). Richardson is less cautious than Shaftesbury in accepting emblems, which he refers to as 'Insignia' (p. 74) and supports by direct reference to Ripa's Iconologia. Pragmatically, he allows the development of new emblems by the artist, with a significant proviso: 'if any be necessarily of his Own Insertion, his meaning should be apparent' (p. 74). The owl and crows in Wootton's painting precisely embody this principle.

The approaches of Shaftesbury and Richardson have substantial implications for Shakespeare painting. The selection of a single moment, its interpretation with what Richardson in the Theory calls 'latitude' (p. 47) through the use of a principal action, with some liberty to select, clarify or elaborate, and the use of emblems either already in existence or specially devised, the whole being capable of ready understanding by the educated reader who will in consequence receive moral instruction and improvement, constitute a clear set of ground rules. They facilitate the treatment of a text in both immediate generalities and encrypted detail, making possible the interpretation of language, character and action central to the provision of an interpretive or critical reading in visual terms. That Richardson's essays were republished in 1725, 1773 and 1792 reveals their continuing influence throughout the century.

Later theorists and commentators, Reynolds by implication in the Discourses20 and Fuseli much more directly in the Instructions for the Connoisseur, will modify and clarify these concerns, but not seriously undermine them; Lessing's Laocoön, published in 1765, was not translated into English until 1836, when it became influential on narrative painting and book-illustration in England. While some artists, notably Fuseli, were aware of it, it was Shaftesbury and Richardson - in addition, of course, to Fuseli and Reynolds - who were still the main foci of theoretical debate. In consequence time, action, emblem and morality remain principles that will guide the work of an increasing number of Shakespeare painters to generate a range of supple and complex insights. They should be seen in counterpoint with a range of larger concerns that assume various degrees of prominence through the century. The debate about the origin of beauty, held between the poles of the classical ideal presented by Reynolds and the forms of nature advanced by Hogarth, remains an important dynamic; in turn, it forms part of the discussion of taste that flourished in the writings of Steele, Fielding and many others. Another part of the debate was the distinction raised by John Locke22 between simple and complex ideas which, while relating to mental processes, uses terms that might almost be applied to paintings and prints, a duality explored and developed by Joseph Addison's claims for the simple immediacy of visual perception as one of the 'Pleasures of the Imagination' in the Spectator (1712).23 It received practical form in the range of meaning attributable to the moral subjects of Hogarth in the 1730s and 40s, and might also be seen as hypostatising a division between painting that merely presents and that which critically interprets.

In various ways all of these concerns relate to the increasing importance of the onlooker and the reading function. Only if narrative devices are understood and allusions recognised may the moral and critical principles that underlie them be assimilated. This process depends on a grasp of the fact that, while its spatial structure would suggest the instantaneous identity of painting in opposition to the temporal nature of literary forms, narrative is implicit within visual structures in their construction and, correspondingly, in how they are read; the opening pages of this chapter implicitly reveal Martin Baxandall's lucid comment, 'if a picture is simultaneously available in its entirety, looking at a picture is as temporally linear as language'.24 The balance between these two frames of temporal construction is one that will be exploited and developed in different ways throughout the century, but it rests on statements made in the early years, most particularly by Richardson in his Theory, which asserts directly: 'Painting is a sort of Writing, it ought to be easily legible' (p. 74). Through the processes this implies, that aspect of connoisseurship concerned with understanding structure and meaning assumes central importance: it generates a discourse of critical discussion and analysis of painting which is actively engaged in by educated onlookers as a demonstration of their taste and understanding. This takes place within the growth of gallery visiting as both a social event and a critical activity, and the process of reading engravings as an intimate discursive exchange. The latter in particular had become an established formal discipline by the century's end. Lamb asserts of Hogarth, 'Other pictures we look at - his prints we read;'25 discussing what to do on a winter evening, Leigh Hunt asks 'shall we read an engraving from Poussin or Raphael?'26 and Keats recalls 'all the pleasant flow/ Of words at opening a portfolio'.27 These discussions are stimulated and in part recorded in the reviews of paintings and galleries found increasingly from the 1780s in periodicals such as the Analytical Review and the Morning Post, and publications dedicated to individual exhibitions, such as Humphry Repton's discussion of the paintings in the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, The Bee.28 Those who could not afford to buy prints were not excluded: the number of images that show crowds examining the contents of print-sellers' windows suggests that this was a popular substitute for gallery-going.29

The nature of the reading practice, and the codes in which critical statements are encrypted, depend throughout the century on the concepts established by Richardson and Shaftesbury. At the level of instantaneous event, a strong impetus is provided by Richardson's sharpening of Shaftesbury's reference to the use of traditional or innovative emblems. More significant in terms of larger critical statement is the allusion to earlier conventions of meaning in Shaftesbury's use of the Choice motif. The simplest dimension of this lay in the prominence it gave to classical myth, a ready way to establish gravitas in both style and subject. In the succeeding years, the former would accord well with the idea of a national school of Neo-classical Painting; the latter might be seen as a visual parallel to the nascent discipline of Shakespeare criticism, often concerned with morality within character analysis. Such values were often embedded in the Choice motif itself. Hogarth was the earliest eighteenth-century English artist to use it as an instrument of critical commentary. It appears, for example, in The March to Finchley (1746)30 and the first plate of The Harlot's Progress31 in contexts quite distant from its original placing, to generate satire both comic and biting. Later, it is important in Shakespeare images, becoming, for example, the basis of Reynolds' 1762 portrait of Garrick, and the alto relievo of Shakespeare by Thomas Banks for the façade of Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery (Fig. 2), both discussed in later chapters. That the initial encounter between Macbeth and the witches was one of the most frequently painted scenes from Shakespeare owes much to contemporary interest in the supernatural, but it may also reflect the popularity of the Choice motif. Once established as a model of the temporal and moral visualisation of narrative, it is used by artists in a variety of situations - historical, satirical, literary, Shakespearean. Its importance lay in far more than the presentation of a sequence: the most effective instances, like those of Hogarth, used the figure to create meaning or critical comment through the dialogue established between its original meaning - a moment of high moral election that would decide the future life of a hero in classical epic - and that which it carried in its new setting, comically or satirically inappropriate to this ethical elevation. In this it is representative of a larger practice that is central to Shakespeare painting as visual criticism.

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2 S. Rawle, The alto relievo in the front of the Shakspeare Gallery, Pall Mall.

The ironic potential of such dialogue is clear in Wootton's use of the trope for Macbeth's choice between the good Banquo and the evil witches, but this is only one of the levels of meaning that may arise. The dialogue generated by allusion may ennoble or debase the new circumstances, revealing a serious or satiric thrust; alternatively, it may illumine the new events conceptually by placing them in the wholly new light of the original figure to suggest a range of critical readings through comparison. Such exchanges are, of course, familiar from two main directions. In art historical criticism they constitute the process of iconographical reference, which draws attention to the development of conventions of representation where particular compositions are used in, for example, a painting of the annunciation, deposition or other Biblical narrative. In such conventions meaning is generated by tradition, supplemented by symbols or attributes - the dove of the Holy Spirit, say, or the keys that designate St Peter. That such tropes are found most often in Biblical painting reveals their didactic purpose: in pre-literate cultures, such images immediately convey both narrative and moral impulse.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

List of colour plates; List of illustrations; Acknowledgments; 1. Placing Shakespeare painting; 2. Play, iconography and social discourse in Hogarth's Shakespeare; 3. Landscape, readership and convention, 1740–90; 4. Fuseli and the uses of iconography; 5. George Romney: meditations of a volatile fancy; 6. 'Shakespeare in riper years gave me his hand': William Blake; 7. 'General ideas and the familiar pathetic': neo-classical Shakespeare and Joshua Reynolds; 8. Fuseli, nature and supernature; 9. Boydell, criticism and appropriation; 10. Summations and departures; Select bibliography.

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