Rosalind in the Forest

WAG 730


This painting by the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais (1829 - 1896) shows a scene from Shakespeare's 'As You Like It'. The heroine Rosalind, disguised as a boy, sits under a tree contemplating her fate after being banished from court. Millais has shown Rosalind wearing contemporary-style costume rather then the dress accurate for the period in which the play is set. Her costume is a variation on a typical decorous full-skirted tunic edged with ribbon worn by actress playing this part in the 1860s and 70s Works based on Shakespeare’s play were popular with middle-class art audiences and buyers during the Victorian period. Scenes from ‘As You Like It’ were particularly interesting to artists due to the subversive reputation of the play, with it’s central themes of cross-dressing, entangled relationships and same-sex desire. In ‘As You Like It’ the intelligent and beautiful Rosalind disguises herself as a young man and adopts the persona of Ganymede after she is exiled by her uncle. Her disguise as Ganymede inspires love and lust in both male and female characters throughout the Forest of Arden. When Rosalind adopts the male dress her whole personality seems to transform and become more masculine, decisive and dominant. This provokes questions about the fluid nature of both gender and sexual desire. Celia, Orlando and Phoebe are infatuated by Rosalind and her male persona, Ganymede. Does Orlando recognise that Ganymede is Rosalind? Or is he enjoying a courtship with someone he presumes to be a young man? Is Phoebe actually attracted to the distinctly feminine qualities of Ganymede? Why did Rosalind choose the name Ganymede -- a hero from Greek mythology who was abducted by the powerful God Zeus for his youthful good looks? The name has been strongly associated with erotic desire between men since the renaissance. Celia’s desire for Rosalind certainly seems to surpass the bounds of conventional friendship, and is a consistent theme throughout the play. The entire logic of the play seems to work against the categorisation of any one form of love or desire. This painting is thought to be a small version of a painting shown at the Royal Academy in 1868. However, unlike the larger version, it does not feature the figure of Celia, Rosalind's cousin and Touchstone the jester. A label on the back of the painting suggests that this was the original sketch for the larger painting. It could just as easily be a later variant. As is often the case with small informal works, the technique is more fluent and lively than in the exhibition picture. The background was painted at Knole Park, near Sevenoaks, Kent.