His Midsummer Night’s Dream

What could be a better antidote to the nail-biting debates of the naturalists, Cuvier, Darwin, and Lyell, for example, than to plunge oneself into the goings on of fairies in fairyland? Just ask the Victorians. They wanted madly to believe in fairies if only to calm their anxieties about their fall from the top of the scala naturae—the horrible suspicion that they might be on the same rung of the ladder with all earthly life, that they might not be God’s favorite creation.

And so fairies were alive and well, and a fashionable subject in the middle of the nineteenth century for a whole host of British artists—who for the most part have today passed into obscurity. But of the few painters still recognized, no one captured the fairies more originally than John Anster Fitzgerald (1823-1906). Fitzgerald spent more than thirty years obsessively painting them, to the point that he was called ‘Fairy Fitzgerald.’ But what sets him apart from the other artists was his adherence to the staggering detail of the natural world—taking a page from the Pre-Raphaelites work—and his dark and twisted vision of the supernatural spirits. He often painted fairies and grotesque goblins holding the red-breasted “Cock Robin’ captive, taking over his nest, stealing bird eggs, or in the case here, tormenting a mouse—the mouse surely a symbol of nature. Fitzgerald’s combination of fairies and their ‘natural setting’ was so complete that in 1859, an art reviewer noted, “Such a rendering of these hideous realities is terribly suggestive that the artist must have a case of such familiars at home.”

But the pressing—pressing, right, what’s a hundred and fifty years—question is, was Fitzgerald on drugs? There’s been quite a bit of ink spilled on the speculation. Art historians mutter that his works have “the most overt references to drug-induced hallucinations,” that his outrageous scenes and themes might not have been created if Fitzgerald hadn’t had a bit of chemical help. He would have been quite familiar with the opium-based laudanum, the go-to painkiller of Victorian England to alleviate all sorts of ills from coughing to diarrhea to, I guess, reality. Nevertheless not a lot is written about Fitzgerald himself. He had a passion for the theater and had worked in the wings; he showed almost two hundred paintings at the Royal Academy exhibitions although he was self-taught. And when he wasn’t painting or doing illustrations for the Illustrated London News or dreaming of fairies in an opium den, he spent his time at the Savage Club, a ‘Bohemian gentlemen’s’ hangout. Yet despite his membership, he kept to himself; he was a loner. When he died the club members remembered him only vaguely as the one who did ‘burlesque impersonations of long-dead’ actors. His obituary summed up his life as being “one long Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

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Sources: Nicola Bown, Fairies in Nineteenth-Century Art and Literature (Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture), 2006; Lionel Lambourne, Victorian Painting, 1999; Christopher Wood, Fairies in Victorian Art, 2007.

(Image The Chase of the White Mouse by John Anster Fitzgerald, circa 1864, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


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