Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Daniel Maclise - The Play Scene in 'Hamlet'

Price Realized £17,328

pencil and watercolour, heightened with bodycolour and with gum arabic, arched
14 x 25¼ in. (35.5 x 64.2 cm.)

By Charles William Sharpe (c. 1830-70) after the painting dated 1842 (Tate Gallery version) first published by the Art-Union of London in 1863 and re-published by them, 1 May 1886).

The present work is an exact copy in watercolour of Maclise's masterpiece exhibited at the Royal Academy, 1842 (Tate Britain, London). In the 1840s Maclise adopted a more intellectual approach and Shakespearean subjects began to replace historical themes, he executed The Banquet Scene from Macbeth in 1840 (Guildhall Art Gallery, London). These two exhibited works established Maclise's reputation as one of the leading painters of his time.

Maclise's iconography at this time was heavily influenced by German sources, in particular the works of Moritz Retzsch (1779-1857). The painting combined elements from the illustration of the same scene in Retzsch's Outlines to Shakespeare and the frontispiece. The painting uses the same compositional framework and symbolism as in Retzsch's work. On the left, above Ophelia, is a statue of prayer and in the tapestry on the left we see depicted 'The Temptation in the Garden of Eden' and 'The Expulsion'. On the other side of the stage is a statue of Justice and tapestries showing 'The Sacrifice of Abel' and 'Cain murdering Abel'. These biblical subjects form an allegorical counter-point to the action of the play. Claudius and Gertrude watch their own crimes acted out before them on the stage. Claudius' tormented face looks away while the statue of Justice looks on from above. Maclise has chosen to depict the key incident of the play where the psychological tension between the characters comes to a head. As Hamlet says, Act II, scene II 'the play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king'.

The formal construction of the picture is designed to enhance the emotional and dramatic impact of the scene. The geometrical structure enables Maclise to accommodate a large crowd of onlookers, densely packed together. The chiaroscuro is used effectively to heighten the tension and throw dramatic shadows behind the figures.

The oil painting, exhibited at the Royal Academy was well received by reviewers, the Athenaeum recognised the influence of Retzsch saying 'There is hardly a plume or a shoe-tie, not tendril on the tapestry, not a shadow on the floor, that has not its part in enhancing this respect his Shakespearean designs have a close affinity to those of Retzsch, whose attention to accessories is no less remarkable... the artist has rarely showed himself so clear of extravagance'. The Times remarked that it was a 'Lion of a Picture' and Charles Dickens called it 'a tremendous production. There are things in it, which in their powerful thought exceed anything I have ever beheld in a painting.'

An oil replica was commissioned by T.G. Williams and another copy in watercolour by Alice Bolton is in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Gallery, Stratford and a related study of Hamlet's head and shoulders is in the National Gallery, Ireland.

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