Today’s post comes from Emily MacLeod, Class of 2012 and Art Center Student Docent.

Sanford Robinson Gifford (American, 1823–1880), The Shrine of Shakespeare, 1859. Oil on canvas. Gift of Matthew Vassar. 1864.1.35

On Monday, April 23rd, people around the world celebrated the four hundred and forty-eighth birthday of William Shakespeare. My professor brought a cake to class and led all the students of his Shakespeare survey course in a chorus of “Happy Birthday.” This is a landmark year for the Bard of Avon, with the World Shakespeare Festival in London happening in conjunction with the hosting of the Summer Olympics. The Festival began officially on the 23rd, and will feature productions of every play attributed to Shakespeare performed by theater companies from all over the world in many different languages. Many shows are heading to both London and Stratford, Shakespeare’s birthplace, to perform with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

 

So I had Shakespeare on my mind already when I walked up to the paintings newly on display in the Hudson River School gallery of the Art Center and saw a work that we have had since the museum’s founding, but that I had never seen in person: Sanford Robinson Gifford’s The Shrine of Shakespeare, a bucolic scene of Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church. The church is the site of Shakespeare’s grave and could be classified as a modern pilgrimage site. When I visited during my junior year abroad in England, I remember the reverence that tourists showed for the church, daintily approaching the resting place of the poet, camera in hand, ready to commemorate their proximity to greatness.

 

Stratford itself, not just Holy Trinity, has become a shrine to Shakespeare’s life and legacy. It was slightly off-putting to see names of plays and characters plastered on every storefront like an amusement park. (The most unsettling example was a row of boats moored along the banks of the River Avon named after Shakespeare heroines. Who in their right mind would hop aboard the Ophelia?)

 

Gifford toured Europe from 1855-57 and made many sketches that he then used for his paintings. The Shrine of Shakespeare, dated 1859, is presumably from this trip. After David Garrick, the famous Shakespearean actor of the eighteenth century, hosted a festival in Stratford in 1769, the town became a tourist destination, contributing to a growing national pride. In response to the ever-deepening adoration of Shakespeare during the nineteenth century, George Bernard Shaw coined the term “bardolatry,” an intense devotion to Shakespeare and his works. It is not surprising that Gifford went to Stratford and wanted to remember this sacred artistic site.

 

Celebrations of Shakespeare this year are not limited to England. Yale University is joining in the festivities with their semester-long Shakespeare at Yale programming—everything from performances to museum exhibitions, concerts and lectures. Over my spring break I was able to attend the exhibition at the Center for British Art entitled ‘While these visions did appear’: Shakespeare on Canvas, a wonderful collection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paintings of scenes from Shakespeare. These depictions of Shakespeare’s works helped establish his importance as a national icon, and Gifford brought back this idea to the United States through his painting of Shakespeare’s birthplace, an idealized scene that encapsulates the mythology of Shakespeare, his origins and his significance in the nineteenth century—a significance that has only intensified over time and across the globe.

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