There is a well-known scene in Jane Austen’s Emma where the heroine is persuaded by Mr. Elton to show her portfolio of drawings. Emma obliges, displaying her work in “pencil, crayon, and watercolour,” but Austen suggests that she might have been better had she applied herself more. Austen’s novel was first published in 1815 at a time when middle- and upper-class women were expected to polish any skill they had in drawing and painting. If you’ve been watching Victoria on PBS you’ve seen her sketching and painting. She was quite talented and, even as a girl, made sketches of scenes from the opera version of Othello. The late 18th and early 19th century was also a time when professional women artists were becoming more prominent in England, and they turned to Shakespeare for some of their subject matter.
One of the earliest was the Swiss artist Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807), who moved to London in 1766 and was one of two women artists who helped found the Royal Academy (no other women were elected as regular members until the early 20th century!). Kauffmann produced a number of Shakespeare-themed paintings, large and small, many of which were circulated widely as prints. Here are her fanciful “takes” on Shakespeare’s birth and death. In the first we see a baby Shakespeare in the arms of Nature, while in the second, Nature places flowers at Shakespeare’s tomb. This scene was sometimes reproduced in embroidery as well.
Kauffmann’s major paintings were made for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, a London art venue on Pall Mall where entrepreneurs John and Josiah Boydell displayed works illustrating scenes from Shakespeare. The gallery opened in 1789 with 34 paintings, but by the time it closed in 1802 it had over 160 paintings. Jane Austen was likely a visitor. The paintings continued an afterlife of distribution as individual prints or as illustrations to many editions of Shakespeare. Kauffmann’s contributions were scenes from Troilus and Cressida and Two Gentlemen of Verona. The first shows Troilus viewing Cressida’s betrayal of him as she makes overtures to Diomede. The latter is rather remarkable – an early #MeToo moment from Act 5, scene 4 of Two Gents as Valentine prevents Proteus from raping Sylvia. Kauffmann clearly captures Sylvia’s struggle and horror as she attempts to break away from Proteus’s arms, while her friend Julia to the right, disguised as a boy, looks on in fear.
Anne Seymour Damer and Caroline Watson
Two other women artists involved with the Boydell Gallery project were sculptor Anne Seymour Damer (1748-1828) and printmaker Caroline Watson (1760-1814). It was unusual for a woman to take up sculpture seriously, but Damer was born into wealth and encouraged to pursue art by her guardian Horace Walpole, collector and man of letters. She was left an impoverished widow at the age of 28 when her debt-ridden husband committed suicide. Damer never remarried but developed her career as a sculptor, travelling widely and exhibiting many works at the Royal Academy as well as designing public sculpture. Her friendships were eclectic, including the politician Charles James Fox and actresses Sarah Siddons and Elizabeth Farren. She made a couple of “bas”- or low – relief sculptures for the front of the Boydell Gallery, one of which showed Cleopatra with her maids, just before her death.
Caroline Watson was the first professional woman printmaker in England. Her skill was recognized by Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, who made her “Engraver to the Queen.” A manuscript payment account owned by the Folger shows that she was paid £210 to engrave a painting by Francis Wheatley of The Tempest, Act 5, for the Boydell Gallery. (The Reverend Wheatley was paid only £105 for the painting.) In many cases, the engravings are actually much better than the paintings!
The scene shows Ferdinand making love to Miranda over a game of chess.
Phoebe Earle Dighton
As we move further into the nineteenth century, we find Phoebe Earle Dighton (1790-1863), who taught drawing and painting while her own work was exhibited at the Royal Society of British Artists and other venues. Like Watson, her skill was honored by the queen. In 1830 she was appointed Flower Painter in Ordinary to Queen Adelaide, wife of William IV. Around the same time, she made watercolor sketches of scenes of Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, and in 1835 published them in a book of lithographs.
Mary Anne Criddle
Finally we come to Mary Anne Criddle (1805-1880), whose career developed during the first half of Queen Victoria’s reign. She began as a painter in oils but switched to watercolor for health reasons and was a member of the Society of Painters in Water Colours. Some of her work was done in the style of “beauties” portraits, fashionable at the time. These were portraits of charming women, often dressed in party gowns, many of which graced the pages of the Christmas gift book annuals. Some artists painted series of Shakespeare’s heroines in this style. From reviews of the 1840s we know that Criddle did several paintings featuring Lady Macbeth, including a very large “Banquet Scene,” whose whereabouts are unknown. The Folger is fortunate to own a small watercolor dating from about 1866, showing a delicate and haunted Ophelia in her madness, watched over by an angel on a tapestry behind her. Ophelia is dressed in her white chemise with a white and gold striped mantle dropping from her shoulder; her light blue court cloak with ermine trim lies neglected on a stool behind her. Criddle is one of few artists to suggest that Ophelia had an actual position at court, that she was more than a rejected lover and soulful young woman.
These are only a few of the many women artists who have been inspired by Shakespeare. The Folger owns a number of reproductions and a few original pieces of their works, including imaginative and fanciful responses to Shakespeare by modern women book artists. You can explore some of the artists further using the Folger’s digital image collection: https://luna.folger.edu/
Most books on Shakespeare and art say little about women artists. Here are a few more focused sources.
Alexander, David. Caroline Watson and Female Printmaking in Late Georgian England. Cambridge: Fitzwilliam Museum, 2014.
Cherry, Deborah. Painting Women: Victorian Women Artists. London: Routledge, 1993. Includes Criddle as well as other artists who painted from Shakespeare, such as Elizabeth Siddall and Rebecca Solomon.
Rosenthal, Angela. Angelica Kauffman: Art and Sensibility. New Haven; London: Yale University for the Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2006.
Yeldham, Charlotte. Women Artists in Nineteenth-century France and England. 2 vols. New York: Garland, 1984. (Yeldham lists the women who exhibited at the national academies and artistic societies with the titles of the paintings – an important resource for uncovering many lost works, especially on Shakespearean subjects.)
Ziegler, Georgianna. “Suppliant Women and Monumental Maidens: Shakespeare’s Heroines in the Boydell Gallery,” in The Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, ed. Walter Pape and Frederick Burwick Bottrop: Peter Pomp, 1996, pp. 89-102.