In the limelight, paintings of the theatre 1: players

Georges Clairin (1843–1919), Sarah Bernhardt in Sainte Therese d'Avila (c 1906), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In some ways, painting the performing arts in theatre is every bit as strange as trying to paint music and concerts. A play tells its narrative in quite a different way, something you simply can’t match in painting. But in the days before photography, paintings were the only lasting record of what took place on the stages of theatres across Europe and America. In these two articles, I look at a small selection: this first article considers painted records of what happened on the stage, and tomorrow’s turns to look at the audience.

If you’ve been an avid or only occasional theatregoer, you’ll be only too aware of the impact of Covid-19 on this important sector of the arts. I hope these paintings remind you of what you’ve been missing – and what we all have to look forward to again in the future.

Artist not known, Scene from Euripides’ Tragedy ‘Andromache’ (before 79 CE), fresco, west wall of the winter triclinium in the Casa di Marco Lucrezio Frontone (V 4,a), Pompeii, Italy. Image by WolfgangRieger, via Wikimedia Commons.

Paintings of stage performances go back to Roman times at least. This fresco from Pompeii shows a scene from Euripides’ play Andromache, in which Pyrrhus is about to be murdered by Orestes, with Hermione in attendance. Pyrrhus part-kneels on the altar of Apollo at Delphi, in the centre, as Orestes, on the right, is about to kill him with the sword held in his right hand.

These painted records became popular around the turn of the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries.

Benjamin West (1738–1820), Hamlet: Act IV, Scene V (Ophelia Before the King and Queen) (1792), oil on canvas, 276.9 x 387.4 cm, Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, OH. Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin West’s painting showing a scene from Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet: Act IV, Scene V (Ophelia Before the King and Queen), painted in 1792, was originally made for inclusion in the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery in London. John Boydell was an engraver and publisher who decided to exploit popular interest in Shakespeare’s works in an ambitious plan for a gallery of paintings of scenes from the plays, prints for general sale, and an illustrated edition of the plays.

This was launched in 1786, the gallery opened in Pall Mall, London, and the books published from 1791 to 1803. Unfortunately he failed to secure the support that the project needed, and the paintings which he commissioned, including this one, were sold off in 1805, leaving Boydell’s company in bankruptcy. West was one of the many artists to have suffered as a result.

Ophelia is seen in white, in a state of madness, with the king and queen at the right showing their growing concern for her. Inevitably, given the nature of Boydell’s project, the painting is theatrical, rather than being a conventional painted narrative.

These reached a peak in Thomas Stothard’s Shakespearean Characters (1813), below, which is a summary of many individual Shakespearean scenes which he had painted earlier.

Shakespearean Characters exhibited 1813 by Thomas Stothard 1755-1834
Thomas Stothard (1755-1834), Shakespearean Characters (1813), oil on paper, 26.7 x 93 cm, The Tate Gallery (Bequeathed by Henry Vaughan 1900), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

The figures and scenes shown include (from the left) Twelfth Night (Olivia, Malvolio, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek), The Merry Wives of Windsor (Falstaff and friends), As You Like It (Celia and Rosalind), The Tempest (Prospero and Miranda), King Lear (Lear and Cordelia), Hamlet (Ophelia and Hamlet), and Macbeth (Macbeth and the witches).

These were revived later in the nineteenth century, when they developed into portraits of celebrities.

Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Portrait of Mlle Fiocre in the Ballet ‘La Source’ (c 1867-68), oil on canvas, Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

The theme of the ballet first appeared in Degas’ Portrait of Mlle Fiocre in the Ballet ‘La Source’, which he painted in about 1867-68. This complex cross-genre work was a product of the artist’s intention to paint ‘modern life’, and his previous history painting.

The ballet La Source (The Spring) was composed by Delibes and Minkus, with choreography by Arthur Saint-Léon, and received its world première at the ballet of the Paris Opera on 12 November 1866. Principal roles were Eugénie Fiocre, the subject of Degas’ painting, Guglielmina Salvioni, and Louis Mérante.

The première was a major event, with Ingres and Giuseppe Verdi attending a preview dress rehearsal, although the production didn’t turn out to be particularly successful. Degas’ painting is also something of a puzzle, as it shows the principal dancer in a static role during the first act, where she rests with her retinue (being the Princess Nouredda) and a horse by a mountain stream.

Georges Seurat (1859–1891), Le Chahut (The Can-Can) (1889-90), oil on canvas, 170 × 141 cm, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps a little lowbrow by comparison, Georges Seurat’s famous Le Chahut (The Can-Can) (1889-90) shows another theatrical setting. This work is a curious contradiction too: Seurat’s painstaking Divisionist facture is completely at odds with the dynamism of his motif.

By the start of the twentieth century, artists such as Georges Clairin were painting portraits of their favourite celebrities in their latest theatrical scenes.

Georges Clairin (1843–1919), Sarah Bernhardt in Theodora (1902), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Clairin’s painting of the international star Sarah Bernhardt in 1902 shows her in the role of Theodora.

Georges Clairin (1843–1919), Sarah Bernhardt in Sainte Therese d’Avila (c 1906), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Clairin painted her again about four years later in the role of Sainte Therese d’Avila.

Painters were also commonly employed to design stage sets, and to decorate the public areas of theatres. My last painting for today is an example of the former, created by the brilliant Austrian designer and painter Koloman Moser.

Koloman Moser (1868–1918), Stage Design for ‘Das Phantom’ (The Phantom) by Hermann Bahr (1913), gouache on paper, 31.2 x 43.8 cm, Kunstverlag Wolfrum, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

This shows a set for Hermann Bahr’s play Das Phantom (The Phantom) of 1913.

Tomorrow I’ll look at paintings less about what’s happening on stage, and more about the audience.