John Anster Fitzgerald, Titania and the Changeling - A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Private collection

Date: Unknown
Technique: Pencil, watercolour and bodycolour with gum arabic, 28.6 x 44.5 cm

The present watercolour would appear to be inspired by a scene from Shakespeare's, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and as such is unusual, in Fitzgerald's oeuvre. Most of the older fairy painters, whether pioneers like Reynolds, Fuseli (Titania and Bottom, 1786-9, Tate Gallery, London) and Blake or more senior Victorians such as Landseer, (Scene from a Midsummer Night's Dream, Titania and Bottom, 1848-1851, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne), Noël Paton (The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania, 1847, and The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, 1849, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh) and Richard Dadd erived their subjects from literary sources. The most popular being Shakespeare's two plays with supernatural themes, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest.
Fitzgerald's most characteristic works represent a significant break with this tradition, showing fairy subjects which seem to be essentially his own invention.

Act II of A Midsummer Night's Dream, opens with a disagreement between Titania and Oberon, which sets the whole action of the play in motion. The cause is Titania's refusal to give Oberon a little changeling boy, whose mother had been Titania's friend and upon whose death the fairy queen stole from his nurse, and brought him up in the woods. Oberon meets Titania in the woods and asks 'Why does Titania cross her Oberon? I do but beg a little changeling boy, to be my henchman.' To which the fairy queen replies 'Set your heart at rest, the fairy land buys not the child of me.' As fairies are close to Nature, the effect of their quarrel is to unleash the malevolent forces of nature and spread dissension and misunderstanding.

Titania is shown embracing the changeling child, while her fairy attendants look on in the left of the picture. Oberon with his attendants may be the figure in the upper right corner; the mischievous Puck dances in the foreground as he tries to steal the garland of flowers. Fitzgerald has deployed some of his favourite fairy motifs in the present watercolour; musical instruments fashioned from objects of the natural world, such as the spider's web harp and the flower trumpeter and insects being ridden by sprites. The watercolour is surrounded by a border of wildflowers, dog roses, sweets peas, convolvulus and foxgloves. Purple convolvulus is a narcotic and the meaning of this flower can either be sleep or death, on the right hand Fitzgerald has painted the poisonous foxglove, both flowers may suggest more sinister connotations.

Source 1
Source 2

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