I Laughed, I Cried: 18th-Century Engravings from Boydell's Illustrated Shakespeare Folio
Henry Fuseli (after), Jean Pierre Simon (engraver), Titania and Bottom with the Ass's Head, 1796, engraving on wove paper, SLU X.176
August 22 to December 13, 2018
The 25 British engravings on display are from an 18th-century portfolio depicting scenes from the dramatic works of William Shakespeare. Published by John Boydell (1720-1804) in an effort to promote British art and his own Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, which featured scenes from the plays of Shakespeare exclusively, the prints were available for purchase either singly or through subscription.
Historical painting in the 18th century was declining as contemporary artists found commissioned portraits and landscapes more lucrative. Taking advantage of the renewed popularity of the works of Shakespeare, Boydell sought to revitalize the historical painting genre by commissioning paintings for his gallery, and as part of that effort, he produced a portfolio of engravings, the sale of which provided funding for the exhibition space. The prints were especially attractive to members of the middle class, who were lauded for their patronage of British art, yet who could not generally afford original oil paintings.
Commerce and the fine arts, seen as incompatible by the high-art establishment, were shown in Boydell’s enterprise to be uniting in a mutually beneficial way.
Boydell paid artists handsomely for their work, and the portfolio includes images by notable artists, including Henry Fuseli, Angelica Kauffman, Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Romney, and Raphael West. Artists also found appealing Boydell’s willingness to publicize and promote their paintings to the middle class in the form of prints. As Alice Rylance-Watson notes, “Commerce and the fine arts, seen as incompatible by the high-art establishment, were shown in Boydell’s enterprise to be uniting in a mutually beneficial way.”
The project faced financial difficulties beginning in 1793 due to a marked decline in the quality of prints. In addition, war between Great Britain and France effectively put an end to trade with the continent, removing an important market for the prints. Boydell was forced to close the gallery and sell its contents in the weeks before his death in December 1804. Of the 84 paintings on display in the upper gallery during the 1796 season, only 29 have been located in museums or private collections. Prints from the Boydell portfolio on display in the hallway gallery are from St. Lawrence University’s permanent collection.