Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Shakespeare400: As You Like It

As You Like It by John Downman, ARA
Old Westbury Gardens
As you tour Westbury House be sure to look up the staircase from the Second Floor Hall and see the oil painting by John Downman depicting Act I, Scene 2, 43­­–57, from Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It.

ROSALIND,                                 Gentleman, Wear this for me—one out of suits with fortune, That could give more but that her hand lacks means.—

In this scene, Rosalind, who has just fallen in love with Orlando at first sight, presents him with a necklace (chain) as a good luck symbol of the goddess Fortune following Orlando’s defeat of the wrestling champion Charles (who is being carried off in the background).   

This very painting once formed part of the Shakespeare Gallery, a late 18th c. art exhibit and financial enterprise founded by the English businessman John Boydell (1719-1804). 

In 2007 the Folger Shakespeare Library curated an exhibit about Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery. You can still visit on only version of the exhibit by following this link . From the Folger: 
(Above and below) Engravings by William Leney
from Boydell's orignal publication.
 Source: Folger Shakespeare Library
Boydell made his fortune by providing engraved prints from famous collections of art, then selling the prints in England and abroad. A savvy salesman, successful politician, and well-known patron of the arts, Boydell determined late in life to foster the improvement of British history painting. He commissioned artists like Sir Joshua Reynolds, Henri Fuseli, and Angelica Kauffman to create works inspired by scenes in Shakespeare, and designed a gallery to display the paintings. He also published engravings of the paintings as illustrations for his edition of Shakespeare’s plays. 
Print by W. F. Starling
Source: Folger Shakespeare Library

The engraving of Downman’s As You Like It would be commonly reproduced and included in most illustrated editions of As You Like It throughout the 1800s and early 1900s. It is featured in the four illustrated editions of Shakespeare’s works that are found in the Library. 

The original painting was eventually purchased by John Phipp’s father, Henry, and displayed in his Fifth Avenue townhouse. 

Henry Phipps's Fifth Avenue and 87th Street Residence
Source: Mattie E. Hewitt & Richard A. Smith Photograph Collection

New-York Historical Society & Museum.

There have been few published remarks about this painting, and probably the harshest may be from Malcom Charles Salaman, the early 20th century English art critic, who asked

Who are these two very sophisticated befeathered ogling young women and who is this effeminate looking youth to whom the foremost  most hands a chain? Can these really be meant to represent Rosalind Celia and Orlando in an incident of most tender romance? Yet presumably the jester and the group in the background carrying away an injured man would suggest that this is the sequel to the wrestling episode in As You Like It. How the acclaimed historical painter is found out when Shakespeare calls upon him to be pictorially simple and human The charmingly delicate portrait drawings which we so rightly value today show the true limitation of John Downman’s pretty and dainty art. He could portray the actress, he could not interpret the poet. [From Shakespeare in Pictorial Art by Malcolm Charles Salaman, London, 1916]
Since the original painting was in a private collection in the United States (the Phipps’s), Salaman probably only had access to various colored and greyscale engravings  to interpret Downman’s work (see below and to the right). Therefore it seems that Salaman’s critique was unduly harsh particularly his depiction of  Orlando. Indeed upon viewing the actual painting  Orlando does indeed seem capable of winning the wrestling match against Charles hardly worthy of the derogatory term “effeminate.”  Likewise the scene depicted is hardly the most tender moment of the comedy. 

As you proceed down the stairs to the first floor there are nine additional works by Downman. Compare these “charmingly delicate portrait drawings” to his depiction of Rosalind and Celia. 

1 comment:

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