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Work The Lappish Witch Watching a Shipwreck in a Storm

Department of Prints and Drawings: 18th century

La sorcière de Laponie observant un naufrage dans la tempête

Prints and Drawings
18th century

Author(s):
Boyer Sarah

The only individual work by this artist in the Louvre, this astonishingly modern drawing provides - together with the five albums also in the collection - an accurate idea of Romney's different graphic manners. Here he uses washes of sepia ink to depict the turbulence of the sea, the fury of water and sky, and the boat going down with its crew; and a biting pen to convey the power of the witch, crouching on a rocky spur with her fists clenched and her cloak swept back by the wind.

Witches

This visionary, extremely modern drawing uses the same subject as two similar studies - with the composition reversed - donated by the artist's son, the Reverend John Romney, to Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum in 1818. Given that Romney's fondness for witches dates from his return from Rome in 1775, we may fairly conclude that these works all date from about 1780. His interest in the subject never flagged, notable illustrations being the Macbeth-inspired studies of witches in a cave, executed after 1789. In addition, his son related that these washes were among Romney's favorite drawings and that they were fairly elaborate studies for a large black chalk cartoon. Unfortunately, according to William Hayley, the artist's patron, this latter was lost when Romney's studio was cleared in 1804.

An enigmatic subject

As mysterious in its origins as in its meaning, this drawing shows a witch watching with delight a shipwreck she has caused during a storm. This scene may refer to the episode in Milton's Paradise Lost in which a witch symbolizes sin; but it could equally be drawn from the 1767 Odes to Lapland, published in Copenhagen in Danish and Latin, in which the Norwegian monk-poet Knud Leem (1697-1774), assisted by Eric Johannes Jessens (1705-1783), outlines the religious beliefs, customs, and rites of the Lapps, illustrating them with engravings. This was the only book on Lapp civilization at a time when "Lapland" meant any northern European country. A second edition was published in Leipzig in 1771 and an English translation appeared in The Spectator in 1778.

Sublime and terrible

Well acquainted with subjects drawn from Shakespeare, Milton, Gray, Ovid, and Aeschylus, Romney illustrated his chosen scenes with childlike pencil drawings and the sophisticated washes of which this is an example. The medium matches the subject perfectly: combining and clashing to suggest the raging waves, the lowering sky, and the ship with the silhouettes of the crew, the single and layered sepia washes sometimes transmute into free calligraphy. By contrast, Romney brings all the force of a pitiless pen to bear on the outline of the witch, crouching on her rocky outcrop. The sheer power of this image confirms Flaxman's description of Romney's drawings as "examples of the Sublime and the Terrible, utterly new in British art at the time"; their visionary intensity reminded him of Blake, their broad areas of shadow Cozens.

Bibliography

P. Jaffé, Drawings by George Romney: Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Exhibition catalogue, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, 1977
L. Pressly, in The Fussli Circle in Rome. Early Romantic Art of the 1770s, Exhibition catalogue, New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, 1979, pp. 118-127.
J. Munro, Shakespeare and The Eighteenth Century, Exhibition catalogue, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, 1997, pp. 5-9.
J. Roberts, in D'Outre-Manche: l'art britannique dans les collections publiques françaises, Exhibition catalogue, Paris, Musée du Louvre, 1994, p. 274, plate 177.
W. Hauptman, L'âge d'or de l'aquarelle anglaise, 1770-1900, Exhibition catalogue, Lausanne, Fondation de l'Hermitage, 1999, p. 48, plate 10.
D. A. Cross, A Striking Likeness: The Life of George Romney, Aldershot, 2000.
A. Kidson, George Romney, Exhibition catalogue, Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, London, National Portrait Gallery, San Marino, Huntington Library, 2002.

Technical description

  • George Romney (Dalton-in-Furness, 1734-Kendal, 1802)

    The Lappish Witch Watching a Shipwreck in a Storm

    c. 1775-80

  • Pen, sepia ink, brush, brown wash over pencil

    H. 29.3 cm; W. 50.1 cm

  • Galerie Paul Prouté; purchased 1991

    4042751

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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