Tag Archives: William Shakespeare

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

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William Shakespeare – Sonnet XVIII

23 May

1880s The Long Walk At Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire - Marie Spartali Stillman, Watercolour1880s The Long Walk At Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire – Marie Spartali Stillman, Watercolour

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

1870s The Sensitive Plant, study, Sir Frank Dicksee. English Pre-Raphaelite PainterThe Sensitive Plant, study, Sir Frank Dicksee, English Pre-Raphaelite Painter

William Shakespeare – Sonnet 116

16 Apr

sense and sensibility 14

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Elizabeth Siddal – Victorian Ophelia

19 Aug

Elizabeth Siddal was an artists’ model, poet, great Pre-Raphaelite beauty and most importantly artist’s muse. Her beautiful features were captured in the painting Ophelia by John Everett Millais.

1852. Ophelia by John Everett Millais

Elizabeth was at the heart of the Pre-Raphaelite artistic community, being married to Dante Gabriel Rossetti; a poet, illustrator, painter and most importantly – the founder of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Though she had artistic aspirations and loved poetry, it was her astonishing beauty that attracted the attention of Walter Deverell who not only employed her as a model but also introduced her to the Pre-Raphaelites. William Michael Rossetti, eventually Elizabeth’s brother in law, described her as ‘a most beautiful creature with an air between dignity and sweetness with something that exceeded modest self-respect and partook of disdainful reserve; tall, finely-formed with a lofty neck and regular yet somewhat uncommon features, greenish-blue unsparkling eyes, large perfect eyelids, brilliant complexion and a lavish heavy wealth of coppery golden hair.’

Unusual for the time, Elizabeth not only worked as a model but also at Mrs Tozer’s millinery part-time which secured her with regular wages, in case her modelling job became uncertain. In 1852. Elizabeth, aged nineteen, modeled for what was to be a very famous Pre-Raphaelites painting – Ophelia. Posing for Ophelia required Elizabeth to float in a bathtub full of water to represent the drowning Ophelia. Millais painted daily and since it was winter, he warmed the water by putting lamps under it. Still, on one occasion the lamps went out and the water became icy cold. Millais, so absorbed in his painting didn’t even notice and Elizabeth didn’t complain either but after this she became severely ill with a cold. Her father blamed Millais for this incident and forced him to pay for her doctor’s bill. Her poor health is attributed to laudanum she was addicted to and which eventually proved to be her undoing.

Besides the beautiful model, the painting is also known for its detailed depiction of nature and flowers. However, Millais ignored the initial Danish setting and the nature around Ophelia turned out to be quintessentially English with predominant English flowers and plants. Even more Victorian is Millais’ usage of the language of flowers; he incorporated red poppy flowers as poppy is a symbol of sleep and death. Ophelia’s garland is based on the one described in the play ‘There with fantastic garlands did she come/Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples’. Ophelia was painted in two stages; Millais first painted the landscape and then incorporated Ophelia’s graceful figure floating on the water. On Ophelia’s face Millais captured both beauty and sorrow, eternal suffering and defiance. Ophelia’s pose in this painting has been described as erotic, with its open arms and upwards gaze, but it is also resembles the pose of martyrs or saints.

Millais painted Ophelia along the banks of the Hogsmill River in Surrey, near Tolworth, Greater London. In vivid shades of green he depicted the wild and untamed nature, both its decay and growth. The atmosphere is static, yet the tree branches, the grass and sparkling white flowers appear as if they are alive, as if they’re dancing on the wind, stretching themselves to have a better view at poor Ophelia, tortured beauty slowly vanishing into the water; there Ophelia sings, unaware of her danger, incapable of her own distress and dies as her white gown, soaked in water, can not float anymore, just like Ophelia’s spirit, too weak for life, vanishes from her frail body. The process of painting nature wasn’t an easy job, Millais complained ‘The flies of Surrey are more muscular, and have a still greater propensity for probing human flesh. I am threatened with a notice to appear before a magistrate for trespassing in a field and destroying the hay … and am also in danger of being blown by the wind into the water. Certainly the painting of a picture under such circumstances would be greater punishment to a murderer than hanging.’

The scene of Ophelia’s death is praised as on of the most poetically written death scenes in literature and this painting, I would dare to say, is one of the most beautifully depicted scenes of Ophelia’s death in art. It is surely the first painting that comes to my mind when I think of Ophelia, the other is surely Alexandre Cabanel’s depiction of Ophelia painted a little more than thirty years after. Farewell, Ophelia…

”Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.”

1883. Ophelia by Alexandre Cabanel1883. Ophelia by Alexandre Cabanel

1894. John William Waterhouse's Ophelia1894. John William Waterhouse’s Ophelia

1889. Ophelia - John William Waterhouse1889. Ophelia – John William Waterhouse

1890s Ophelia - Constantin Meunier (date not sure)1890s Ophelia – Constantin Meunier (date not sure)

1900-05. Ophelia by Odilon Redon1900-05. Ophelia by Odilon Redon