Art Historian Brings Shakespearean Influence on Art to Life

March 02, 2009

Rollins students filled the Cornell Fine Arts Museum February 16 in anticipation of an exploration led by renowned art historian William Pressly. The author of many books, including several on the Irish artist James Barry, Pressly focused his discussion on themes from his most recent book, The Artist as Original Genius: Shakespeare’s ‘Fine Frenzy’ in Late Eighteenth-Century British Art.

Examining self portraits of famed British artists, Pressly identified the artists’ use of Shakespeare’s originality in defining their own unique styles in an artistic period dominated by classical influence.

“It is an interesting dichotomy,” Pressly said. “We see a clear difference in artists going with the tried and true of the classical style and those artists who, like Shakespeare, tried to push the envelope of originality.”

Shakespeare’s influence appears as a recurring theme in many of the artists’ works. The artists tried to maintain their own artistic style while concurrently attempting to emulate the images of fine frenzy made famous by Shakespeare in the late 18th century. This style is found in a variety of artists works, from James Hamilton Moritmor’s collection depicting characters like King Lear, to the artists’ own self portraits.

Pressly argued that these reoccurrences of Shakespearean themes demonstrate a truly original, unique bond between the artists and the dramatist. “Such a bond,” Pressly indicated, “elevated Shakespeare in the minds of these artists to the level of deity.”

Associate Professor of Art and Chair of the Department of Art and Art History Susan Libby noted it was “interesting to see how society's ideas about what constitutes creativity changed from emphasizing imitation to celebrating originality and individuality.”

Aside from the lecture’s specific content, Libby thought the visiting scholar also shared an important concept with students. “The lecture was a great illustration of how the humanities are truly interdisciplinary,” Libby said. “Pressly’s talk touched on art, European history, the history of ideas, literature, theatre, and a bit of psychology. The event provided a different approach to scholarship, as well as the end results, which is a different kind of learning experience for students than what they regularly receive in class from their professors.”

Pressly is one of the many scholars brought to campus by the Winter Park Institute, which launched its inaugural year with the mission of fostering a vital community of scholarly engagement. To accomplish this goal, the College brings together distinguished faculty members and thought leaders from diverse fields of study invited for limited residencies. The ultimate goal is to establish an atmosphere of enlightened conversation and capture the synergy created when scholars share information, debate issues and shed light on a variety of significant, timely topics.

By Megan Licata (MBA Class of 2010)

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