Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1840), Richard Rothwell

by Rachael Herman

Here we are again, folks; another weekend, another long and boring post about a painting. Ah, I’m only kidding, I promise this one will be shorter! Today I will be guiding you in the way of Dublin Society School graduate and Royal Hiberian Academy member, Richard Rothwell. His works consist primarily of portraiture and genre pictures, but the work I will be focussing on is his study of novelist Mary Shelley, which can be viewed below. As usual I will provide you with a little background on the subject, followed by an analysis of technique, content, context and relevance to myself. All very lovely.

Shelley, despite having achieved such literary acclaim by the tender age of twenty three with her magnum opus, Frankenstein, had a woefully tragic life. She outlived three of her four children and her husband, poet-cum-philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley, before finally facing her own mortality in the guise of a brain tumour, aged an equally tender fifty one – this is one woman who knew pain and knew it intimately. Upon reading her lengthy biography on that fine site Wikipedia, I will admit I was close to tears. I’m serious, this extract from her despairing husband’s notebook after the death of their third child is so agonisingly heart-felt it hurts:

‘My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone,

And left me in this dreary world alone?

Thy form is here indeed—a lovely one—

But thou art fled, gone down a dreary road

That leads to Sorrow’s most obscure abode.

For thine own sake I cannot follow thee

Do thou return for mine.’

After that dreary introduction, we’ll get down to the artwork itself. The painting above was completed by Rothwell in 1840, a year after Mary started suffering from symptoms of what was later discovered to be a brain tumour. Although those fresh, rosy apple cheeks of hers hint at youthful beauty; the haunted pallor, complemented by mournful, sunken eyes, serve as the testimony of a woman forced to live under the curse of perpetual mourning, and following that, personal affliction. This is perhaps reinforced in the way that Mary is holding herself, which appears to be quite awkward; her right shoulder hunched above her left forcing her to hold her head and neck in a somewhat serpentine ‘S’ shape. Not an unattractive woman, her slight, birdlike features – the gently pointed nose and swan-like neck – emerge from the gloom as if a rare and exquisite nocturnal creature. The overall eerie feel of the piece does bare resemblance to the literary stylings of the subject, whose repertoire includes gothic tales of dark, experimental science and apocalyptic sci-fi.

When addressing the colouring of the painting, it is easy to first notice the predominant black appeal of the outfit – undoubtedly referencing the succession of unbearable losses that Mary has had to endure – as well as the humility of the muted surroundings; presenting themselves to the audience under no pretence of opulence or grandeur – perhaps signifying the poverty of her latter years. The dark russet waist-band again signifies sorrow and seriousness, and being an autumnal colour, the subsequent ‘autumn years’ of the sitter. The flame red and vermillion tones of the chair could signify her political seat -one of Romanticism and Liberalism -as Mary was well-known for presenting her political views across in her writing.

Rothwell’s style creates an expressive yet careful rendition of the human form, with hints of Classicism (in the study of the face) and the burgeoning influence of Romanticism (shown through Rothwell’s choice of subject – a major player, not only in Gothic, but also in Romantic literature), which was starting to gain a strong hold over the arts at the time. This is particularly true if one views Mary as the heroic figure: an intelligent and strong female overcoming the trials of a tragic life in order to emerge triumphant as a literary genius. Or something like that. Where tremendous care appears to have been taken in the portrayal of Mary’s delicate face, half of that care is evident in the representation of her attire. Prime example being the joining of the flesh with the dress, where we can see a rather faltered marriage of paint with canvas, and no matter how firm I set my mind against it, my eye inevitably strays over to and pauses at this artistic misdemeanour. And now yours will too. Sorry.

If I am to learn anything from Rothwell’s approach to painting, it would be how he uses colour and earnest facial expressions to evoke a sympathetic and sincere atmosphere about his subject, thus causing the viewer to feel warmly and gently beckoned into the company of his sitter. Well, that’s what I think anyway.

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