James Barry, King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia, 1786-88

The painting depicts the final scene of Shakespeare’s play King Lear and was painted for publisher John Boydell’s ‘Shakespeare Gallery,’ a collection of pictures inspired by the works of the famed playwright. We see Edgar and Albany at center, who go on to inherit the kingdom after King Lear dies in anguish. Lear is at the far right side of the canvas, weeping over the body of his daughter Cordelia, who was betrayed by the conspirator Edmund and executed in prison as a result.

Barry gives us a classical landscape (but makes it decidedly British with Stonehenge in the background) and all the figures strike classical poses, with the exception of King Lear, whose wind-swept hair and raw emotion are in sharp contrast to the rest of the painting. He does not occupy center stage. Lear seems to intrude upon this otherwise balanced scene. Perhaps this is because Barry felt a real loyalty to his country but loathed the monarchy, which he saw as a corrupt institution intruding upon the British civic republic.

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