This portrait is of David Garrick, the most famous actor in Britain during the mid-18th century. He was a personal friend of the artist, William Hogarth, and a collector of his paintings. At the time of this portrait Garrick was the equivalent of a modern celebrity, and this painting can be seen as a kind of publicity picture for him.
Garrick was well known for playing the leading role in Shakespeare's play, Richard III. This portrait is a scene from the end of that play. Richard is in his tent shortly before the Battle of Bosworth. He is being haunted by the ghosts of all those he murdered in order to become king. They have warned him that he will suffer his punishment, death, in battle the next day. He is terrified. His panic contrasts with the calm of the camp to the left of the painting.
This painting is not just a portrait. It is also a historical painting of a time in England's past. Hogarth thought that English people should learn from what had happened in English history, not foreign, ancient history.
The crucifix just behind Richard may also be an indication of Hogarth's personal opinions. It is a Catholic symbol that had a special meaning in the year this portrait was painted. The Catholic prince, Charles Edward Stuart (the Young Pretender) had just invaded England from Scotland. Hogarth was a protestant. He saw a link between Richard's cruelty and the possible return of a Catholic king to the English throne.
It was also the first major Shakespearian painting. At that time Shakespeare was not considered great writing. People thought that his work was not a suitable subject for a painting of this size and importance. However, Hogarth was ahead of his time and saw how good it really was.
Hogarth has painted Garrick's body in a sort of 's' shape - a 'serpentine' line. Hogarth thought this was very beautiful and described it as, “the line of beauty and grace”. The ermine trim of his cloak and the curtains behind him echo this effect. They also emphasise his isolation from the people outside the tent.
The canvas itself is very large. It matches the grandeur of the theme. Garrick's head is painted on a separate, smaller piece and then set onto the rest of the canvas. The seam can be seen if you look carefully at the original.