Artwork of the Month

Pascal Adolphe Dagnan-Bouveret (French, 1852–1929)
Hamlet and the Gravediggers, 1883
Oil on canvas, 40 x 33 1/2 in.
Signed and dated lower left: J Dagnan-B 1883

Trained under the renowned academician Jean-Léon Gérôme at the École des Beaux-Art in the 1870s, Dagnan-Bouveret staunchly maintained the academic tradition while modernizing it by depicting contemporary themes and using photographic techniques to organize his compositions. A leader of the so-called Naturalist school of painting, best represented by the artist’s friend Jules Bastien-Lepage, in the 1890s he moved toward religious symbolism and throughout his career created subjects ranging from intimate portraits, still lifes, and landscapes to enormous genre and religious scenes. In 1889, Dagnan-Bouveret won a grand prize for his collective exhibition of works at the Exposition Universelle in Paris and also received a Medal of Honor in Painting at the Salon for his Breton Women at a Pardon (1887, Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon). He was named Officer of the Legion of Honor in 1891 and member of the Institut de France in 1900.

Hamlet and the Gravediggers is an early work, stemming from the Romantic tradition of art derived from modern literature. In the famous episode from Act V, Scene I of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Danish prince and his friend Horatio happen upon the gravediggers and discover the scull of Yorick the Jester, inspiring Hamlet to contemplate the fate of all mankind, beginning: “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio—a fellow of infinite jest.” Painted in the lighthearted and somewhat satiric “troubadour style,” Hamlet and the Gravediggers clearly references Delacroix’s images of the same subject created over a quarter of a century earlier. Dagnan-Bouveret, however, departs from his famed predecessor in his bold allusion to contemporary theatrical tropes through the presence of the batiste handkerchief at the center of the canvas. In 1844, the celebrated English actor, William Charles Macready, invented Hamlet’s use of a fine handkerchief to cleanse himself of contact with Yorick’s skull and, following his performance of the title role in Paris, the handkerchief became an important prop in French productions of the play, one which the French critic Théophile Gautier deemed to be “very English.”

Dagnan-Bouveret’s emerging signature artistic style—Naturalism—can be seen in the figures of the gravediggers in the foreground. In particular, he describes with exactitude the man looking up toward Hamlet, taking pains to carefully note every detail of the figure’s ragged clothes. Also characteristic of his mature methods, he modeled the figures of Horatio and Hamlet on his artist friends Gustave Courtois and Karl von Steffen, and he appears at the lower right, photographically cropped and facing away from the viewer. The painting was first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1884 and popularized by reproductions in periodicals the same year. The artist presented Hamlet and the Gravediggers as a gift to his teacher, Gérôme. The American banker George F. Baker later acquired it and donated it to The Metropolitan Museum of Art when the artist’s reputation was well-established in the United States, having reached its zenith in 1901 when he was honored with a special exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.