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The Seven Ages of Man

From As You Like It

George Romney. Drawings and sketches. Drawing, late 18th century

Toward the end of 1793, Romney began work on his last major subject inspired by lines from Shakespeare, the "Ages of Man" as described by Jaques in As You Like It. Most of the Folger drawings on the theme depict the first stage of life, that of the infant. Romney did not limit himself to Shakespeare's description of the babe "mewling and puking in the nurse's arms," but added his own images to those of the poet, including in the scene additional figures standing and kneeling, and the mother reclining on a couch behind.


Romney's graphic technique at this period was marked by the use of different materials and media. The paper he used in the 1790s, but not before, is a relatively heavy and smooth, cream-colored wove paper, quite different from the laid paper used earlier. His favorite medium was a softer graphite than he had used previously. The resulting style in these drawings is markedly different from that of Romney's earlier work. Darkness pervades the scenes, which are usually framed within a rectangle marked out on the page. Thick parallel strokes are laid on diagonally and belabored obsessively. Patches of shading consist of directional systems at war with one another, creating areas of tone that collide in a jarring manner. Figures register as white holes on the page. On the verge of being totally swallowed up, these figures but tenuously hold their own against the vigorous assault of the encroaching lines.


Romney experiences a serious illness in the spring of 1796, robably the first in a series of strokes that began to afflict him.


As his final years progressed, the artist was to endure old age almost as Shakespeare described it: "Last scene of all ... is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everyhing."


John Romney wrote that in his father "Reason, that noble faculty of the mind ... became entirely extinct before the dissolution of the body; and he departed life mentally the same as when he came into existence."


Accopmanying Romney's physical decline was an intesification of the melancholia to which he had always been prone. That gloom is amply conveyed in Romney's drawings on the "Ages of Man" and in other subjects he delt with in the mid to late 1790s.

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