Robert Smirke: The Awakening of King Lear

See more paintings in Painting Shakespeare.

On view in the Painting Shakespeare exhibition
May 13, 2017 – Feb 11, 2018 

Curated by Erin Blake


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The Awakening of King Lear by Robert Smirke
Robert Smirke (British, 1752–1845). The Awakening of King Lear, circa 1792, from King Lear (act 4, scene 7). Oil on canvas, 78.7 x 54 cm. Folger FPa53. Purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Folger, 1922.
Item Title: 
The awakening of King Lear [graphic] / by Robert Smirke.
Item Call Number: 
Item Creator: 
Smirke, Robert, 1752-1845, artist.
Item Date: 
ca. 1792.

King Lear, woken by Cordelia's kiss, is scared and confused, unsure whether he is alive or dead. Instead of emphasizing the fear, Robert Smirke's composition visually foreshadows a happy reunion by placing father and daughter together in a stable pyramid at the base of the picture.

The Awakening of King Lear is one of twelve Folger paintings from the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery (1789–1804), a London art gallery that broke the mold by admitting members of the paying public rather than just the people who moved in the social circles of private collectors.

According to art theory at the time, great paintings capture a meaningful moment in a grand narrative, usually from a bible story or classical mythology. The Boydell Shakespeare Gallery laid claim to a uniquely British source of momentous stories: Shakespeare. By the time it closed, the Boydell gallery contained 167 Shakespearean paintings. Most are now considered lost, and some are just fragments.

The Awakening of King Lear is one of three Boydell paintings in the Folger collection that still have their original frames. The neoclassical frames at the Boydell gallery let viewers know to expect something with cultural weight. Instead of elaborate curlicues and contrasts, the frames have straight lines and restrained patterns befitting “serious art.”

William Adair of Gold Leaf Studios in Washington, DC, recently conserved this frame by stripping away old touch-up paint to reveal the original gilding, replacing missing bits of ornamentation, and re-gilding as needed.

See more paintings in Painting Shakespeare.