Illustrating Shakespeare: From Boydell to Baskin

Old College Gallery
August 31 – September 25, 2016

Robert Thew after Henry Fuseli, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, 1796, Stipple engraving
Robert Thew after Henry Fuseli, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, 1796, Stipple engraving

The plays of Shakespeare were intended to be experienced in real time.   Such crucial moments as Lear’s madness, Miranda’s first glimpse of her future husband, and Hamlet’s encounter with his father’s ghost were ephemeral passages within a larger narrative. After three centuries of images inspired by Shakespeare, we may find it difficult to imagine a world without artists’ visualizations of Hamlet, Ophelia or Macbeth.  How would we “see” these characters were it not for prints and paintings that capture a moment, photographs of actors on stage, and film stills?

Almost a full century would pass between the author’s death and the first illustrated edition of his works, Jacob Tonson’s six-volume Works of Shakespeare (1709). Throughout the eighteenth century, other artists would follow, including Hubert-François Gravelot (1699-1773), who brought a distinctly Rococo tone to his illustrations for an English publisher, and William Hogarth (1697 – 1764), who looked to the stage of his time to paint the actor David Garrick as Richard III and other Shakespeare scenes.

This exhibition opens with the late-eighteenth century enterprise of the successful printer and publisher John Boydell (1719-1804), who commissioned major artists then active in England to paint scenes from the plays to be exhibited in a London gallery on Pall Mall.  His objective was to prove the vitality in England of history painting – the genre most valued at the time by art academies throughout Europe.  The paintings are today lost or dispersed, known mainly through the engravings published by Boydell, the sale of which was intended to support his project. From this point forward, artists in England, Germany and France, looked to Shakespeare for inspiration.

Drawing from Delaware collections, this exhibition focuses on key characters in the plays visualized by artists whose works reflect changing tastes and styles.  Created over two centuries, these images bear witness to the legacy of Shakespeare and to our continued fascination with his creations.

Click image below for a look at Shakespeare events occurring at UD throughout the fall, including several events from our colleagues at UD

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