‘While these visions did appear’: Shakespeare on Canvas

This exhibition, selected from the permanent collections at the Yale Center for British Art, forms part of Yale’s university-wide celebration of the works of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). ‘While these visions did appear’: Shakespeare on Canvas focuses primarily on depictions of Shakespeare’s comedies, but also draws on comedic elements from the tragedies and histories, and encourages consideration of the multifaceted ways—verbal and visual—in which Shakespeare’s plays have inspired painters and audiences alike. The Center’s holdings of Shakespeare-related material, which includes paintings, prints, graphic satire, drawings, and rare books and manuscripts, can be explored through our website: britishart.yale.edu.

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, Shakespeare’s plays flourished on the stage, while the promotion of 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 of British art: 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 from 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, printed editions of Shakespeare’s plays, depict characters in pivotal, dramatic moments, such as Phillippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg’s depiction of Falstaff from Henry IV.

By the 1830s, the project to secure Shakespeare’s national, historical significance had essentially 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, the Shakespearian subject matter lent propriety to such concoctions 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 Cruikshanks’ rare and ebullient paintings of 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’ has been 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.