The picture was catalogued at Christie's in 1924 with the following quotation from Shakespeare's play:
'Viola: "Good Madam, let me see your face.'
Olivia: "Have you any commission from your lord to negotiate my face? You are now out of your text," etc.'
The excerpt is from Twelfth Night, Act I, scene IV, in which Viola, disguised as a page, comes to press Orsino's suit. So beguiled is Olivia by the eloquent messenger, that she reveals the face she had pledged to conceal in her avowal to mourn her brother for seven years: 'And like a cloistress she will veiled walk' (Act I, scene 1).
Hook depicts the moment when Olivia 'draw[s] the curtain and show[s]..the picture'. His composition is clever; the disdainful Olivia lifts her delicate veil with all the archness of one fully aware of beauty's power ('..is't not well done'); Viola kneels as befits her nominal rank, but her meditative gaze also bespeaks the authority of secret knowledge - knowledge of her own situation, and the wily politics of love crossing the social divide.
The artist had undertaken several scenes from Shakespeare's Venetian plays, The Merchant of Venice and Othello, during his early career as a history painter. Following his acceptance of a three year travelling studentship, awarded to him on meritorious grounds by the Royal Academy in 1846, Hook spent two years in Florence, Rome, Parma and Venice. Olivia and Viola pays tribute to the Venetian masters, with their rich colours and elegant compositional devices.
It is probable that the model for Olivia was Rosalie Burton, who married Hook in 1846 and accompanied him on the Italian tour. She sat for Colin thou ken'st, the southern shepheard's boye, the Spenserian subject painting now in the Manchester City Gallery. Her heart-shaped face with its wide brow is distinctive, and also appears in Othello's description of Desdemona, a small oil study (private collection). The model for Viola has not been identified, but she bears a resemblance to Portia in Hook's painting The defeat of Shylock
(also 1852, Manchester City Gallery).
The Art Journal applauded Hook's exhibit: 'The picture is remarkable for brilliance of colour and softness of execution. The high intellectual power of the artist may have been better seen in more ambitious works - but there is exquisite feeling in this'.
We are grateful to Juliet McMaster for her help in preparing this catalogue entry.