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King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia

James Barry, 1786-88
Tate, London


Scott Paul Gordon emphasizes the importance of style in Barry’s King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia :

“We must read Barry’s King Lear Weeping Over the Body of Cordelia as ‘patriot’ art or, to use a term applied to Blake’s work, as ‘republican art.’ In the eighteenth century, J.G.A. Pocock notes, the term ‘patriot’ had a ‘subversive significance,’ referring to ‘one who loved his or her country more than its ruling family or even its institutions.’…Barry held monarchy responsible for Britain’s failure to support public-spirited history painting that could, in John Barrell’s words, ‘promote the security of a civic republic,’ a failure that testified to the state’s corruption….

It is difficult, however, to make the final scene of Shakespeare’s Lear tell a republican story….But what if we look not to the painting’s plot but rather to its visual language for political significance? Barry’s decision to represent this moment of Lear’s plot has so transfixed critics that we have failed to recognize that the painting delivers its ‘story’ not through narrative but through composition and stylistic codes. Though Lear’s massive bulk and windswept white hair may first draw the viewer’s attention, equally important is this figure’s relation to the rest of the painting: pushed to one side, Lear does not occupy center stage. At the painting’s center stand Edgar and Albany, the virtuous young men who are to inherit Lear’s state, whom Barry represents in a different stylistic mode….The Greek style evident in Edgar’s heroic modeling pervades the painting’s style as a whole, which (unlike its earlier version) depends on the unequivocal contours, clear outlines, and spatial organization of neoclassical artistic production. Only Lear seems inappropriate here, a figure from another style – perhaps another world – intruding into this classical one.

Barry’s painting hosts, in effect, a combat between two styles that in the eighteenth century were associated with Michelangelo and Raphael….Barry himself favors Raphael’s ‘discretion’ and ‘elegance and grace’ over Michelangelo’s ‘terrible dignity.’…One ‘sees in Raffael (sic) and in the antique the same things, but not in the same degree of perfection,’ Barry wrote….Barry’s composition is not clumsy but strategic. He stages this stylistic competition to display the value of the antique and to delegitimize the nonantique (and that which, through the figure of the old king, he associates with it).”

Scott Paul Gordon, “Reading Patriot Art: James Barry’s King Lear,” Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 36, no. 4 (Summer 2003): 494-5 & 501.

Similar Subjects by Other Artists:

Benjamin West, King Lear in the Storm, 1788 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Ford Maddox Brown, Cordelia at the Bedside of Lear, 1849 (Tate, London)

About the Artist

Born: Cork, 11 October 1741
Died: London, 22 February 1806
Nationality: Irish