Eye Candy for Today: Edwin Landseer scene from Shakespeare

Scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Titania and Bottom, Edwin Landseer
Scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titania and Bottom, Edwin Landseer

Link is to zoomable version on Google Art Project; downloadable file on Wikimedia Commons; original is in the National Gallery of Victoria, which also has a zoomable version.

Edwin Landseer was a Victorian painter noted in particular for his sensitive and beautifully portrayals of animals, so it’s no surprise that he chose to interpret this scene from Shakespeare’s famous comedy, in which Titania, Queeen of the Fairies, has awoken — her eyes clouded with a love potion applied by jealous husband Oberon in the hope that she “Wake when some vile thing is near.” — and has fallen madly in love with poor Nick Bottom, an innocent weaver, himself transformed by mischief-loving sprite Puck into having the head of an ass.

The beauty of love-stricken Titania is contrasted with the monumental and beautifully painted ass head, bedecked with floral wreaths as the Fairy Queen’s minions wait on him at her command.

The white rabbit is notable not only for its striking character — a pink-eyed apparition against the darkness of the deep forest night — but for the effect it may have had on author Lewis Carroll. As noted on the Google Art Project page, he saw the painting at exhibition and remarked in his dairy: ‘There are some wonderful points in it – the ass’s head and the white rabbit especially’. Whether Landseer’s painting actually influenced Carroll’s character of The White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is pure conjecture, but an interesting thought, nonetheless.

My eye was drawn to the far right of the painting, where the fairies romp and flitter in the forest night, the diaphanous wings of one seeming to vibrate against the moonlit sky and distant hills.

4 Replies to “Eye Candy for Today: Edwin Landseer scene from Shakespeare”

  1. Judging by the shape of the crescent Moon, the Sun would still be more or less on the horizon , and so still daylight, instead of the night scene depicted. Of course it’s still a very delightful painting, and if he had just changed the angle of the crescent I would have no bones to pick with it. But it makes me wonder why so many artists, who are trained observors after all, should so often fail to observe such basic astronomical facts. I myself have taken less obvious liberties with the phase of the Moon and the state of the tide, for example, but not with something so obvious as the angle of the crescent Moon in relation to where the Sun will then have to be. It happens in literature as well … When the action is taking place in late evening and then the author has a crescent Moon rising; a waning crescent Moon would not rise until an hour or two before dawn, and a waxing crescent would be setting, or set (not rising), at the time of the late evening action being described. Still, it is a lovely painting and thanks, Charlie for showing us.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Steven. I think issues like this often come under the heading of “artistic license”, in that the apparent contradiction is a deliberate choice because the emotional effect is more important to the finished work than observational accuracy.

  2. Such a gorgeous piece. Charley, thanks for linking to Wikimedia, it makes it so easy to study the work up close. I noticed other beautiful details, Bottom’s scissors hanging from his belt, the luminous fold of Titania’s sheer skirt over his knee, the elfin ears on the male fairy directly in front of him. What a magnificent painting to come out of Shakespearean comedy!

  3. Yes … there is ‘artistic license,’ and there is ‘artistic license.’ JMW Turner Watercolour of Brixham, South Devon has the sun rising almost due north … artistic license; I have no criticisms as in this so beautiful a Watercolour perhaps Nature should be changed, so that the Sun does rise in the North. I also read a discourse, in the Turner Society News, concerning one of his oils about whether it was a twilight evening or a morning depicted, when it was clearly a morning by the direction of the crescent Moon (my memory says morning … it could have been evening if I am mis-remembering the direction of the crescent). This was pointed out by a reader (not me), and I believe the author may have invoked artistic license … I doubt it in this case.

    Now that I am seeing this wonderful Landseer painting on my PC screen, and not my phone, I see that the lower half of the Moon is below the distant hills and upon a closer examination of it, one could make a case that it may actually be tilted enough for it to be long enough after sundown so that this is an accurate depiction. Upon further thought, if my original criticism was to be correct, then Landseer would either be ignorant (meaning lack of knowledge … not stupidity), or just plain sloppy. Since I don’t think he was either, the crescent Moon probably would be tilted enough if we were to see the whole of it. Artistic license thus need not be invoked, as it oft times is to justify what is probably just sloppiness.

    I totally concur with Pat Achilles comments.

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