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Eugène Delacroix, Roméo et Juliette, vers 1850, huile sur papier marouflé sur toile, Paris, Musée national Eugène Delacroix, MD 2008-3. © RMN-Grand Palais musée du Louvre Mathieu Rabeau

NAMUR.-  « Ah, la vie a des moments drôles et imprévus & sublimes à la fois comme dans Shakespeare ! » écrivait Félicien Rops.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) acquiert en Angleterre, dès 1750, le titre de maître de la littérature nationale. En France, il faudra attendre le 19e siècle pour que l’oeuvre du dramaturge prenne toute son ampleur, grâce à l’intérêt des auteurs mais aussi des peintres romantiques. Les grandes fresques littérai- res du passé, celles de Dante, de Racine, mais aussi de Shakespeare deviennent alors des sources d’inspiration essentielles pour les auteurs romantiques mais aussi pour les peintres, qui entretiennent une relation particulière à l’art de la mise en scène. Eugène Delacroix, Gustave Moreau, Théodore Chassériau et bien d’autres peintres, graveurs et sculpteurs français ont consacré leur talent à interpréter les sentiments, drames et passions des héros shakespeariens. 

Hamlet et Ophélie, Roméo et Juliette, Macbeth et sa « Lady », Othello et Desdémo- ne, autant de personnages aux destins dramatiques hantés par l’amour, les re- mords et la mort. L’exposition au musée Rops se décline autour de ces figures tragiques qui inspireront les artistes du milieu du 19e siècle en quête de gran- des épopées amoureuses, d’étrangeté et de valeurs morales. Dans la continuité du romantisme, les artistes symbolistes ont, à leur tour, représenté les héros shakespeariens, tels des archétypes des passions humaines. Constantin Meunier, Alfred Stevens, Eugène Smits et d’autres artistes belges subissent l’influence du théâtre anglais pour laisser transparaître leurs doutes et interrogations face à cette fin-de-siècle qu’ils tentent d’apprivoiser. 

Grâce à la collaboration avec le musée du Louvre et le musée national Eugène-Delacroix, une soixantaine de peintures, gravures, affiches et sculptures de différentes institutions sont rassemblées au musée Rops pour donner la mesure de l’impact du théâtre de Shakespeare sur les arts pla- stiques au 19e siècle dont les représentations inspirent, aujourd’hui encore, les metteurs en scène et les comédiens. 

Exposition du 21/10/17 au 25/02/18

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Jules Bastien-Lepage, Ophélie, 1881, huile sur toile, Nancy, musée des beaux-arts, inv. 1235. © G. Mangin

NAMUR.- The early 19th century witnessed a real rediscovery of Shakespeare in France. The feelings, strangeness and morals found in the poet’s tragedies influenced painters, engravers and sculptors to create an art of emotion and narration. Delacroix, Chassériau, Moreau, Préault and the Belgian artists Samuel, Meunier, Smits and Stevens all drew inspiration from the world of the English playwright. 

The exhibition Romantic Shakespeare is dedicated to the way in which artists in the Romantic period and then from the late 19th century saw in the works of the English author, who had died almost two centuries previously, a source of inspiration for their own creations. They used his writings to open up the possibility of reviving art, drama and painting. Shakespeare thus became a romantic icon. 

This exhibition, which is the result of a partnership with the Louvre and the national Eugène-Delacroix museum, presents sixty outstanding works from French museum collections, supplemented by Belgian fin-de-siècle artists. 

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Alfred Stevens, Lady Macbeth, s.d., huile sur toile, Musées de Verviers, inv. 616. Photo J. Spitz

William Shakespeare and his reception 
William Shakespeare (Stratford-upon-Avon, 1564-1616) is the playwright whose work is most widely performed, read and commented on in the world. Combining the sublime and the ridiculous, his plays surprise with the richness and penetrating charm of his style, his command of dramatic construction and the abundance of his characters. And yet his life remains an enigma for historians and his texts are a challenge for translators. Some people long doubted his very existence, while others disputed the authorship of certain works. These quarrels are now largely behind us. His existence has been historical established and he is indeed considered to be the author of his plays, even if their chronology is approximate. 

Whereas in the early 18th century Shakespeare’s tragedies did not influence the plastic arts, by the end of the century, entire galleries were devoted to them. Engravings depicting scenes from his plays became popular both in the form of prints and as illustrations in various publications. “The second half of the 18th century saw a multiplication not only of Shakespearian illustrations but also of painted interpretations, produced by leading artists of the time. Around 1760, almost one-third of the plays performed in London in the course of a year were works by the Elizabethan playwright, stressing the topicality of his influence over 150 years after his death.”2 

Engravings publisher John Boydell officially opened the Shakespeare Gallery in London in 1789. The project was born in the context of an emerging British national culture and deliberations on how to celebrate it. William Shakespeare appeared as the obvious standard bearer of this national culture, and images of the playwright were imprinted in the collective imagination through paintings and engravings.

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Paul Steck, Ophélie, 1894, huile sur toile, Paris, Musée du Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la ville de Paris, in. 3696.© RMN-Grand Palais Agence Bulloz

Why did the French Romantics revive Shakespeare’s plays? 
Romanticism is a literary and artistic movement that appeared in England in the 18th century and then in France in the 19th century, promoting the exaltation of feelings and passions, and the liberation of the imagination. 

It was not until the 1820s that the work of the English playwright really became significant in France thanks to the interest of Romantic authors but also painters. The major literary panoramas of the past, those of Dante and Racine but also Shakespeare, became vital sources of inspiration for the Romantics, who maintained a special relationship with the art of stage production. In the midst of the English revival, Victor Hugo wrote Cromwell (1827), the first Romantic play about 17th-century England. His son, François-Victor, then translated the complete works of Shakespeare, which appeared in 1859. Among the many French adaptations of the time, the French actress Sarah Bernhardt took on the male role of Hamlet, already a highly popular character. 

The discovery or rediscovery of Shakespeare’s works was to help the Romantics to affirm, on stage, the right of the body to be recognised and, in language, the right to mix registers. Readings and performances of these plays were to contribute towards the depiction of violence in history, but also towards the liberation from the rules of classical theatre and decorum. Thanks to Shakespeare’s works, dramatists and painters alike felt free to proclaim disorder in dramatic art, released from the hierarchy of the genres. The violence of the Elizabethan dramas was imported into the Romantic scene: as in Shakespeare, there was a lot of death and killing. 

The strength of the passions expressed, the strangeness of the characters and the plots, the temporal and spatial freedom of Shakespeare’s plays captivated French painters, engravers and sculptors such as Eugène Delacroix, Gustave Moreau, Théodore Chassériau and others. Shakespeare’s works were a notable source to renew their creation, bringing forth an art of emotion and narration. The Romantics adopted many motifs, situations, principles of dramatic art and character types which nurtured their aesthetics of dread. 

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Félicien Rops, Frontispice pour les Oeuvres inutiles et nuisibles avec en marge Morticulture, 1879-1880, héliogravure reprise à l'eau-forte, pointe sèche et vernis mou, crayon et encre de Chine. AMIS, inv. GD E0418