It's Shakespeare ... but is it art?

The idea was born over dinner in 18th-century London. John Boydell, a prominent and well-to-do publisher and politician, was convinced that England lacked a suitably accomplished and vigorous tradition of history painting — the grand style of epic moments and great men, spread across huge canvases, that was generally regarded as the highest and most edifying form of painting at the time.

So, after consulting with the eminent artists of his day, he decided to jump-start it — by commissioning dozens of paintings of scenes by Shakespeare.

Boydell's gallery, a short-lived but remarkably influential private museum that opened in 1789, is the subject of the intriguing new exhibition: "Marketing Shakespeare: The Boydell Gallery (1789-1805) and Beyond," at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. The exhibit includes paintings commissioned by Boydell, engravings made from them, and other artifacts that show the generally dizzy and appallingly sentimental craze for all things Shakespeare at the end of the 18th century.

Boydell had grand plans. He opened his gallery, a 4,000-square-foot space in a very good neighborhood, as part of a concerted campaign to promote Shakespeare, commission art and generally elevate English taste. He persuaded prominent artists who are famous still — Joshua Reynolds, Benjamin West, George Romney and Henry Fuseli, among them — to participate. He spent heavily on mediocrities, too.

The gallery opened with 34 canvases. By the time it went belly up in 1805 — after Boydell had invested a fortune, more than 100,000 pounds — there were 167 paintings, and at least one for each play.

The fascinating thing about the museum show is how awful most of the paintings are.

Boydell was trying to instill the values of history painting, with its strong geometrical form, its condensation of energy and importance in towering figures set against epic backdrops. But often his artists produced small domestic dramas, willowy young men courting pale women in flouncy dresses, surrounded by the markers of domesticity one might expect in a Dutch scene of daily life.

Boydell's painters frequently turned to the tradition of theatrical painting, recording intimately the faces and gestures — painfully histrionic by today's standards — that one might conceivably see in an actual performance of Shakespeare.

William Hamilton's "The Duke of York Discovering His Son Aumerle's Treachery" is typical. The scene is from "Richard II"; the subject, a father's uncovering of his son's participation in a plot to the kill the king. He tears from the young man's neck a seal that proves his complicity; he berates him; and he ignores his wife's plea not to denounce and destroy their child.

The painting feels decidedly stagy. The action is contained within a small space, a window drapery looks suspiciously like a theatrical curtain, and the young man's gesture — right hand thrust to his forehead, his torso inclined backward as if buffeted by a gusty wind of melodrama — is something one might find on the cover of an old penny dreadful.

Of course, static images of live performance are almost always painful to look at. Just examine any season brochure for a theater or opera company. Just as human beings are not meant to be seen immediately upon waking up, they are not meant to be seen fixed in frozen form while cavorting on stages. What is grand and powerful and shocking behind the footlights is just ridiculous and silly in the glare of the flashbulb.

It's also curious to consider what an odd project Boydell's gallery was, from the very outset. The Folger's Georgianna Ziegler, who curated the show along with Ann Hawkins, points out that there was not an abundance of art available to the English public at the time. Art museums were virtually nonexistent, and art collections were closely held by the wealthy, to whom one would appeal for the rare chance to study painting and sculpture. To see an old master, you needed access to someone's living room.

Boydell was throwing open art to a much broader public, and for a while they came. Author Charles Lamb, perhaps the most brilliant mediocrity of his age, visited, and wasn't amused.

For Lamb, making Shakespeare visual and tangible in images or even performances was an insult to his own imagination and the purity of the Shakespearean experience. (The plays were best encountered, he thought, between the pages of a book, a book with no illustrations.)

"What injury did not Boydell's 'Shakespeare Gallery' do me with Shakespeare," he wrote. "To be tied down to an authentic face of Juliet! To have Imogen's portrait! To confine the illimitable!"

These are the grumpy harrumphings of someone who, no doubt, would cringe to see his favorite book made into a movie.

Boydell's Gallery was indeed, as this exhibition's title claims, about "marketing Shakespeare," and the market has never been kind to nuance and subtlety and all the private gleanings an individual mind will find in a great work of art. These paintings do a better job capturing actors, and the show has rich visual detail on figures such as David Garrick and that great Lady Macbeth, Sarah Siddons.

Boydell's paintings reduce Shakespeare to something easily exchanged — memorable images and engravings available to the general public. In that exchange there is loss. The public remembers not Shakespeare but a distilled version of Shakespeare.

Great art often inspires. Bad art occasionally teaches. There is more purely sociological data in an Elvis on velvet than a Rothko.

Boydell failed to make a lasting gallery of Shakespearean art. But if his gallery still existed, what pleasure to stalk it with the eye of an anthropologist, to catalogue the strange creatures, both bigger and smaller than we'd expect them to be.

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