Shakespeare in Art

Written by  Maria Luisa Pacelli
Eighteenth and nineteenth century European painting inspired by the great playwright.
An exhibition at the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara until 15 June explores the relationship between Shakespeare's genius and European painters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Shakespeare, whose works have been more often performed than those of almost any other dramatist since the seventeenth century, has inspired artists of every genre in every generation. At first painters mainly illustrated single scenes in the manner of realist portrait painters. For example, William Hogarth's 1730 work depicting Falstaff enlisting his own troops illustrates Act III of Henry IV Part 1.

From the middle of the century, however, there emerged a style more focused on transferring into painting the feelings and passions of the great dramatist's works. Painters such as Johann Heinrich Füssli, George Romney and William Blake ceased to render their subject in a naturalistic fashion and began to paint works inspired by the imagination, preferring those scenes from the plays with most psychological impact. Of these painters the Swiss Füssli achieved the most vivid depiction of the imaginary world of the poet in paintings such as Titania embracing Bottom which conjures up one of the most magical moments in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many artists worked in the theatre as scenographers or amateur actors; theatrical productions provided the impulse for a new style of conversation piece, and actors' portraits became the highlight of many exhibitions. David Garrick, the actor, theatrical producer and adaptor of Shakespearean texts, was a major figure in this movement and his presence on the London stage did much to confirm the playwright's reputation. He appears in this exhibition dressed as Romeo in Benjamin Wilson's portrait.

Differences of taste and sensibility during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries delayed the spread of Shakespeare's popularity across the English Channel. In France success arrived at the beginning of the following century with the actor François-Joseph Talma, who staged a production of Hamlet which fascinated romantic painters, above all Eugène Delacroix, represented in the exhibition by three canvases including the Death of Ophelia.

In Italy, where Shakespeare's works were staged only occasionally, the plays became widely known through operatic adaptations. Against this background the most successful work, in part because of its Italian setting, was Romeo and Juliet, depicted here in a painting by Francesco Hayez. Literary subject matter enjoyed a revival in popularity in Victorian England, and the pre-Raphaelites in particular found Shakespearean drama a rich source of inspiration. The exhibition includes Ferdinand lured by Ariel by John Everett Millais and Valentine rescuing Sylvia from Proteus by William Holman Hunt.