The new image of acting as a form of portraiture can be seen in the interaction between paintings, especially history paintings, and the theatre during the period

From Dark Imagination: Poetic Painting in Romantic Drama.


The new image of acting as a form of portraiture can be seen in the interaction between paintings, especially history paintings, and the theatre during the period. As a genre, history painting purported to capture patriotic scenes from a nation’s past, executed, in various styles and with varying degrees of fidelity to the known "facts" of the historical incident they depicted. These influenced visual portrayal in the theatre, where set poses and scenes would be worked into the performance to imitate depictions in well-known paintings. Reciprocally, and particularly as a reflection of the popularity of Shakespeare in the theatres of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, "history" painting began to take on the character of theatrical settings and figures, taken frequently from Shakespeare. These history paintings were not representations of literal scenes such as battlefields or oceans; nor portrayals of historical personages as they were supposed to have looked. Such interchange is illustrated most strikingly in the history paintings executed for The Boydell Shakespeare Gallery. Just before the French Revolution, Alderman Boydell, an important publisher of engravings, commissioned paintings on subjects of national importance, hoping to make money and to further the reputation of British history painting. He established a Shakespeare Gallery on Pall Mall and printed an illustrated edition of Shakespeare’s works, The Boydell Shakespeare Prints. Important painters of the period, including theatrical scene painters, were commissioned to create paintings for Boydell’s purpose. In addition to illustrating Shakespearean works, these prints also reflected the character of history painting, and they reflected theatrical scenes in their large size and the style of their portrayal of their subjects. In turn, the popular success of Boydell’s deliberate blending of history painting and Shakespearean illustration conditioned audience expectations of what they would see portrayed on the stage. Altick sums up the impact of Boydell’s Gallery: "It determined [people’s] visual perception of Shakespeare’s characters and scenes . . ." (Shows 106-8).

History paintings borrowed their themes from the theatre, and acting and scene painting borrowed their themes from history painting. Each art form influenced other art forms. Artistic and generic reciprocity and influence could be seen also in portrait painting as it took for its subjects increasingly famous people of the day: theatre actors. Portraits of actors did not represent just the actor in his or her own person or even as simply a characterization in a fictional drama. Instead, Shakespearean scenes and actors pictorially represented historical figures, making history seem suspended in time. Examples of this appear as early as the middle of the eighteenth century, when Nathaniel Dance’s painting, Timon of Athens, presents a Shakespearean scene as if it were a moment from history. One of the best demonstrations of paintings depicting actors is Hogarth’s David Garrick as Richard III, which presents a theatricalized Shakespearean Richard III posing as an historical figure even though the figure is very recognizable, deliberately so, as the actor Garrick. Highlighting accentuates Garrick’s, or rather Richard III’s, face and body against a darkened background, distinguishable as a stage.

Not only did paintings present theatricalized English historical moments, but in the years around 1800, "historical" renderings were offered of a wide variety of topics. Notable among these were the depictions of Greco-Roman deathbeds, featuring the expiring, or expired, bodies of warriors like Hector, Germanicus, and Virianthus, or philosophers like Socrates and Seneca. Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Socrates images a drama of dying, presenting an "historical" account to spectators. The figures representing onlookers in that painting display affective responses to Socrates’s impending death in a style illustrative of the influence of theatre. On one hand, these figures seem to be acting out parts in the continuing drama of Socrates’s life; on the other, they seem to be posed in statuesque frames. We see also that David, in a manner replicating theatrical lighting, plays with light in his paintings to focus on gesturing. In another of his famous works, The Oath of Horatii, figures of grieving women seem to respond to the heroism of the men depicted front stage. The background of this "historical" moment could as well have been a stage backdrop. The foreground is shortened, and the whole painting has a theatrical effect. The artist contrasts, in this static portrayal, heroism and tenderness, dividing pictorial spaces in masculine and feminine attitudes. But David’s paintings show that the influence worked the other direction as well. In the theatre, the popularity of le Brunian techniques of presenting actors’ poses which create living portraits illustrates David’s impact on theatrical representations of dramatic moments.

The full significance of this interrelationship between painting and the theatre can be better understood by looking into examples of the style of dramatic intensity being incorporated in the best-known paintings of the time. Obscurity, of the kind de Loutherbourg experimented with an element of theatre scenery, exercises the Romantic imagination in paintings too as painters employ a theatrical style in drawing upon texts of famous authors for their subjects. The texts of Shakespeare and Milton furnished the richest and most tragic themes for depiction in Romantic painting. John Runciman’s canvas, King Lear in the Storm (1767), produced one of the earliest visual translations of Shakepeare’s works, a practice which Fuseli began in the 1770s and Delacroix and Carstens take up in the nineteenth century. Fuseli’s use of chiaroscuro emphasized highlighted phantasmic figures against darkened backgrounds. His painting of Lady Macbeth Seizing the Dagger communicates in skiagraphic manner an intensely dramatic moment in Shakespeare. In many of his works he sketched the world of nightmare, his images making the dream world visible. J. M. W. Turner who was to become a famous painter of the period after Constable, has been characterized as a high Romantic visionary in the tradition of Coleridge and Shelley and called "a dramaturge of light" whose work is "pervaded by dream vision representations"; commentators are quoted frequently to underscore the theatricality of his paintings (Kenneth Clark said of A Fire at Sea [1814] that its effect makes us "want to stamp and clap our hands," and E. H. Gombrich remarked that Turner handled his crowded canvases like "a superb stage manager" [Nicolescu 7-18]). Turner’s The Shipwreck (1805), The Battle of Trafalgar (1808) and Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps (1812) are examples of his highly influential expressive work in the vein of dramatic theatricality and history painting style. John Martin’s paintings often situate fictional or historical figures in highly theatrical nature settings of torrents, waterfalls, precipitous crags, and unattainable mountain peaks. His 1812 painting, Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion (1812)–a work inspired by a story, in James Ridley’s Tales of the Genii (1762), which also inspired staging as "an Asiatic Spectacle" in 1797 and restaging at Covent Garden in 1814 (Feaver 16-17)–incorporates elements of the Burkean sublime, as do Martin’s Adam’s First Sight of Eve (1812) and his The Expulsion of Adam and Eve (1813). Romantic shadings of light and dark in Martin’s paintings startle and stimulate the imagination of the beholder, and they are noted for their strong theatrical qualities. In Thomas Girtin’s Subject from ‘Ossian’, (c1800) we note the use of water-colors highly suggestive of transparencies, similar to de Loutherbourg’s theatrical transparencies. Also typical of the Romantic artists’ vision were Casper David Friedrich’s Mountain Landscape with Rainbow (c 1809), Mountain Landscape with Rainbow (1809) and Man and Woman Gazing at the Moon (1819), where contemplation is rendered as a form of action. Although Friedrich’s paintings do not seem to suggest theatrical narrative, like Girtin’s they do employ de Loutherbourgian transparencies; and to some extent they reflect the dramatists’ visions of the unknown and alien. His paintings join with those of Fuseli, Martin, and others effecting a revolution in which symbolism and perception itself are thematized. Perceivers’ readerly responses to these paintings differ only slightly from their responses to Hogarth’s narrative paintings, to Thomas Lawrence’s Kemble as Hamlet, or to David’s theatricalized death scenes. What we see in all of them is the complex duality of perception which is such a vital part of Romanticism. Referring to the way an artist should conceive paintings before creating them, by contemplating with the inner eye, Friedrich advised, "Shut the physical eye in order to see your subject first with the spirit’s eye, then steer toward the daylight that you have perceived among the shadows" (Brion 114). The illusion conjured by the theatre audience, drawing imaginatively upon the imagistic styles and suggestiveness of skiagraphic effects in their previous experience of viewing theatre and painting, is also dependent on that duality of perception. The frame of the proscenium arch and the frame around a landscape or portrait painting both engaged audience participation in illusion.

This whole world of interaction and perceptual reciprocation that came together during the Romantic period shows how different the context for Romantic drama had become from the earlier conceptions of the separation between poetry, or verbal art, and painting, or visual art. According to Lessing’s distinction between the space medium of visual art and the temporal medium of verbal art, the painterly moment is unitary, without duration, and without movement. Our experience of watching the visual medium of film today leads us to resist Lessing’s statement that one can view a painting at one glance; and it is not inaccurate to say that this change began with the Romantics. Romantic art, as Hazlitt’s essays on the graphic art of Hogarth point out, brings back to painting the movement and passion that Lessing had suggested should be removed. Indeed, Hogarth’s famous series of narrative paintings, A Harlot’s Progress, dramatic in their conception, demonstrate the point well. And, in his well-known statement about his intentions for the series, Hogarth verifies this: "My picture was my Stage, and men and women my actors who were by Means of certain Actions and expressions to Exhibit a dumb shew" (216). A story-teller in painting, Hogarth made people both read his paintings and play the role of theatrical audience to them. Contrary to Lessing’s assumption, then, the Romantics came to see that we read dramatic kinds of painting the same way we read a written text. Lamb says, in his essays on Hogarth, "Other pictures we look at,–his prints we read" (1:71). The theatrical and narrative quality of Hogarth’s works and many others we have discussed here constitute a fundamental reciprocity between the painting of Romantic artists and the poetry of Romantic dramatists.