Tag Archives: supernatural

Witches Round the Cauldron by Daniel Gardner (1775)

5 Nov

When shall we three meet again,

In thunder, in lighting or in rain.‘ (Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act I, Scene I)

by Daniel Gardner, gouache and chalk, 1775Daniel Gardner, The Three Witches from Macbeth, 1775

‘…something wicked this way comes.’

As the eighteenth century slowly approached its end, things were getting darker on the artistic scene. Ghosts, vampires and witches suddenly appeared on canvases of painters such as Henry Fuseli, Goya and William Blake. Dark side of the imagination began to shape works of art as well as literature, and the aesthetic of sublime slowly crept in. This was the answer to the excessive coldness, lightness and rationality of Classicism. In times when this was painted, public tastes were inclined towards the supernatural and Gothic, especially with theatre-goers who loved scenes from Macbeth. ‘Paint the witch!‘ replaced the more barbaric ‘Burn the witch!’.

Although the subject of this scene hints at the later developments of Romanticism, its execution is true to the styles of Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, two artists whose style Gardner emulated, and often borrowed ideas for composition and arrangement of figures. This is an utterly charming and dreamy portrayal of three witches from Macbeth. There’s nothing scary or disturbing about it, and these three ladies are certainly prettier than Shakespeare had intended his witches to be, but these are not just three witches, oh no, Gardner actually portrayed three friends, society hostesses, art lovers and supporters of Whig party in this portrait.

The figure on the left, with long brown hair, is Elizabeth Lamb (nee Milbanke), Viscountess Melbourne. Witch on the right, dressed in splendid, sparkly black robe with zodiac symbols on it and tiny golden details, is Anne Seymour Damer (nee Conway) who was also an amateur sculptor. She has a typical black ‘witch’ hat and holds a magic wand in her right hand. In the middle is the most extravagant and well remembered out of all three; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, famous for her beauty, bold fashion statements, gambling and partying (much like Kate Moss today), her affair and an unhappy marriage. Along with a hat, her beautiful head is covered with gauze veil, and while she holds the sumptuous white silk fabric of her dress with one hand, she uses other to throw some herbs or blue flowers in the cauldron. Despite portraying a Shakespearean scene, which is a great task for the imagination, Gardner didn’t really use it, but rather chose to follow the fashion of the day; both in clothing the ‘witches’ wear and the style and composition of the painting itself.

High society lady, writer and diarist Lady Mary Coke (1727-1811) wrote in her diary of ‘the Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Melburn, and Mrs Damer all being drawn in one picture in the Characters of the three Witches in Macbeth … They have chosen that Scene where they compose their Cauldron, but instead of “finger of Birth-strangled babe, etc” their Cauldron is composed of roses and carnations and I daresay they think their charmes more irresistible than all the magick of the Witches‘. (*)

Although I find the whole painting aesthetically pleasing, and very fitting for the mood of these post-Halloween days, I must say a thing or two about the brushstrokes and the play of light. Gardner beautifully portrayed their dresses, painting in soft, playful and refined strokes, using gouache and chalk. And the light; see how the bronze cauldron glistens, smoke arises like in a dream, and the reflections of the fire on the gorgeous silk dresses of the witches. I should also mention the possible allegorical meaning of the painting; since all three women were interested in politics and publicly supported the Whig party, it is possible that Gardner painted the cauldron as a symbol of ‘shadowy political machinations as leading members of the Devonshire House circle.’ (*)

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Gothic Imagination of Henry Fuseli – Shakespearean Scenes

23 Oct

Henry Fuseli not only announced the art movement of Romanticism with his painting The Nightmare, but also created one of the most original, fantastical and darkly beautiful paintings of Romantic era, influenced some other Romantic minds such as William Blake, and indulged his Gothic imagination and his interest in Shakespeare by illustrating some of his plays in a beautiful macabre manner. Also, Fuseli’s work is ideal for all you lovers of sublime in art.

1790. Henry Fuseli - Titania and Bottom Titania and Bottom, Henry Fuseli, 1790

Although Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) was born almost thirty years before the majority of Romantic painters, his most famous work ‘The Nightmare‘ (1781) is almost avant-garde; very progressive in many aspects – its theme, dark eroticism, dreams, the unconsciousness, mysteries, all announced the arrival of a new art movement that would put emphasis on the subjective, intimate, mysterious and emotional – the Romanticism. One of the four main themes of Romanticism is the ‘mystical and occult’; a theme which seems to have been a particular favourite of Henry Fuseli, a lover of the night sky and supernatural in art.

As an artist Fuseli connects the spirit of Neoclassicism and Romanticism. While his paintings are conventionally executed, and his compositions fairly classical, his themes are certainly not. Es evident from his most famous work, The Nightmare, he was fascinated with fantastical and horrifying motifs, and, just like Romanticists, he showed a particular interest in history and illustrated scenes from Shakespeare’s plays just like William Blake who created drawings and paintings under the influenced of Fuseli. It’s not surprising that Shakespeare’s vivid imagination was appealing to Fuseli, if we think about some of the plays he has written: gloomy Scotland in the 11th century, a selfish and ambitious king, three witches and a ghost of a murdered man – Macbeth, tragic lovers and victims of two families in feud, passions and suicides – Romeo and Juliet, a play about jealousy, reality and surreal events, lovers and death of Desdemona – Othello, and of course the first existentialist character in literature, insanity, skulls, ghosts, poor maiden Ophelia – Hamlet: it’s easy to see why Shakespeare’s themes would be appealing to Fuseli and Romanticists in general who considered Shakespeare as their role-model.

Dark, dreamy and fantastical is the atmosphere of Fuseli’s illustrations of Shakespeare’s plays. It seems like the characters on the painting are brought to focus, painted in a typical late eighteenth, early nineteenth century manner, while the rest of the scene is engulfed in darkness: this way Fuseli shows his specialty in painting technique, the play of light and shadow. It suits perfect for these Shakespeare scenes because it seem like the characters live in a world of darkness, and also, Fuseli may be reminding us that these paintings portray scenes from plays. Characters are in the spotlight, and the surrounding darkness perhaps symbolises the far corners on the stage. Fuseli excels in setting his figures in motion, and he spent seven years in Rome so his paintings of bodies are all due to studying Michelangelo’s work.

The Dream of Queen Katherine (from William Shakespeare’s ‘Henry VIII’, Act IV, Scene 2) (fragment), Henry Fuseli

1809. Romeo stabs Paris at the bier of Juliet - Henry FuseliRomeo stabs Paris at the bier of Juliet – Henry Fuseli, 1809

1793-94. Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head. By Henry Fuseli,Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head, Henry Fuseli, 1793-94

1780-85. Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus, and the Ghost of Hamlet's Father. Henry Fuseli,Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus, and the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, Henry Fuseli, 1780-85

1812. Johann Heinrich Füssli - Lady Macbeth with the DaggersLady Macbeth with the Daggers, Henry Fuseli, 1812