The subject is taken from As You Like It, Act I, Scene 2. Rosalind and her friend Celia, daughters respectively of the banished Duke and his brother, the usurper Frederick, watch a wrestling match between an unknown youth, Orlando, and Charles, a professional wrestler of formidable reputation. Naturally they want Orlando to win, as indeed he does.
Rosalind: O excellent young man!
Celia: If I had a thunderbolt in mine eye, I can tell who
The picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1855, and in the catalogue Maclise listed the characters from left to right as follows: Dennis, a servant; and his master, the ill-natured Oliver; Orlando's elder brother; Charles, the Duke's wrestler; Le Beau, a courtier; Duke Frederick (seated); Celia and Rosalind (Rosalind, as she should be, the taller); the jester Touchstone (seated on the step); Orlando; and Adam, his old servant.
The subject had figured before among the innumerable illustrations to Shakespeare that were produced by British artists in the late eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries. Henry Fuseli had drawn it during his years in Rome. He may have intended to include it in an ambitious scheme, inspired by Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling, to paint a room with frescoes based on Shakespeare's plays. John Downman had painted a closely related theme for the Boydell Shakespeare. His picture shows Rosalind presenting a chain to the victorious Orlando with whom she has fallen in love, not least since he has turned out to be the youngest son of Sir Rowland de Boys, a close friend of her exiled father. Other scenes in the play were painted for Boydell by William Hodges (with the assistance of George Romney and possibly Sawrey Gilpin), William Hamilton and Robert Smirke.
The play also had a vigorous post-Boydell life as a source of inspiration for artists. Some, like William Blake and John Constable, were attracted to the theme of Jacques and the wounded stag, the subject of William Hodges' Boydell painting. The Pre-Raphaelites responded particularly to the idea of the two pairs of lovers in the Forest of Arden. Deverell, Millais, Arthur Hughes and the obscure E.W. Rainford all painted variations on this theme. For others again the rustic courtship of the jester Touchstone and the shepherdess Audrey held great appeal. John Pettie and his fellow Scot C.M. Hardie were among those who painted this episode.
Maclise often drew inspiration from Shakespeare. He himself was a devotee of the theatre, and two of his closest friends, the novelist Charles Dickens and the journalist and critic John Forster, were passionate amateur actors. In 1840 the three men visited Shakespeare's birthplace at Stratford-upon-Avon, which Forster, a great Shakespeare scholar and the proud possessor of a First Folio, was later instrumental in securing as a national monument to the Bard. Maclise made his debut at the Royal Academy in 1829 with a scene from Twelfth Night, and he returned to this play for one of his most popular works, an attractive account of Malvolio appearing cross-gartered before Olivia and Maria in the garden which he showed at the R.A. in 1840 (Tate Gallery). 'I can look at it for ever', wrote the actor W.C. Macready (whose portrait as Werner Maclise painted for Forster), 'it is beauty, moral and physical, personified.' With it was shown another, very different, Shakespearean subject, the melodramatic Banquet Scene in 'Macbeth' (Guildhall Art Gallery, London), and these were followed two years later by The Play Scene in 'Hamlet' (Tate Britain). This time Dickens was the eulogist. The picture, he wrote emphatically, was 'a tremendous production. There are things in it which, in their powerful thought, exceed anything I have ever beheld in painting'. All these paintings betray the strong influence of the theatre, the figures and backgrounds resembling actors on stage.
As You Like It began to engage Maclise's attention pictorially in 1848, when he was commissioned by the great civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel to paint a picture for the Shakespeare Room which he was planning at his London house in Duke Street, St James's. As a leading exponent of Shakespearean subjects, Maclise was an obvious choice for this project, as were C.R. Leslie and Augustus Egg, although other artists, such as Edwin Landseer and Clarkson Stanfield, were approached because their specialist skills lent themselves to some particular Shakespearean theme. Maclise suggested that he should paint the last scene in As You Like It, in which 'most of the characters are brought together picturesquely in a woody landscape'. Nothing came of the picture beyond a preliminary sketch (Victoria and Albert Museum, Maclise Exhibition, 1972, no. 83), but the Forbes picture, painted seven years later, is closely based on the idea, showing nearly all the play's principal characters in a landscape setting.
The Wrestling Scene in 'As You Like It' is a magnificent example of Maclise's later style, but had a mixed reception when it was exhibited. The Athenaeum found it 'dramatic, picturesque, imaginative, and full of detail; yet with no very great sentiment, and too masculine and sinewy to possess much subtlety of poetic feeling'. 'Never was (Maclise's) imagination more actively at work', wrote Tom Taylor in the Times. 'Determined to make his numerous personages expressive, he has gone into the very depths of their character to seek for influences, and has branded his discoveries on their faces.' After giving examples, he continued: 'All this shows marvellous invention and discrimination of character, but the artist makes us wish that he had sometimes reined in his power, and dared now and then to be insignificant. So much obvious meaning is there in every corner of the work that we long for a point of repose.'
John Ruskin, not surprisingly, was the sternest critic. 'This work,' he wrote in Academy Notes, 'has every fault usually attributed to the Pre-Raphaelites, without one of their excellences. The details are all so sharp and hard that the patterns on the dresses force the eye away from the faces, and the leaves on the boughs call to us to count them. But not only are they all drawn distinctly, they are all drawn wrong' - a point which he proceeded to demonstrate as only he could.
As recently as 1972, when the exhibition intended to re-assess Maclise was held at the National Portrait Gallery, the picture was still being denigrated for its 'self-conscious theatricality and obsessive detail.' Much of this criticism stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of Maclise's intentions, and in particular the strong influence which German art had on his development. Even his early Shakespearean subjects had borrowed motifs from Retzsch's Outlines to Shakespeare (1828-46), but it was in the mid-1840s that his work became overtly Germanic. A significant example is the Scene from Undine (Royal Collection), which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1844. It was bought by Queen Victoria as a birthday present for Prince Albert, to whom its German subject and quasi-Nazarene style gave it understandable appeal.
The trend was encouraged by Maclise's close involvement with the decoration of the new Palace of Westminster, which owed so much to German precedent and was driven by the Prince Consort in his capacity as President of the Royal Commission in charge of the project. In 1859 Maclise himself visited Berlin and Munich to discuss mural techniques with German artists, although this was four years after he had painted The Wrestling Scene in 'As You Like It'. In fact the picture falls midway in his work at Westminster. His first contribution to the scheme was The Spirit of Chivalry, a mural in the House of Lords commissioned in 1845. This was swiftly followed by The Spirit of Justice, and then there was a gap until 1858 when he embarked on the two vast murals which are his undoubted masterpieces, The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher at Waterloo and The Death of Nelson at Trafalgar, in the Royal Gallery. Nelson was eventually completed in 1865, but the herculean task had undermined Maclise's health and he died five years later.
The Wrestling Scene in 'As You Like It' was by no means Maclise's last venture into Shakespearean subject matter. Paintings inspired by Othello (1867), Richard II (1867) and Macbeth (1868) were among his last RA exhibits. Yet another example, an Othello and Desdemona of 1859 which was apparently not exhibited in Maclise's lifetime, was sold in these Rooms on 6 November 1995, lot 130.