signed J. Simmons and dated 1870 (lower left)
While Simmons painted portraits for the majority of his career, in the 1860s and early 1870s he completed a series of scenes inspired by Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (Jane Martineau, ed., Victorian Fairy Painting, exh. cat., London, 1997, p. 125). Performances of Shakespeare's play of magic love and mythical creatures were some of the most popular on England's stages in the nineteenth century, and offered endless opportunities for artists like Robert Huskisson, John George Naish, Noel Paton, and Richard Dadd to create flamboyant conceptions of the fairy-world. Though employing the same source material, Simmons work stands apart from others of the period in its high level of realism contrasted with imaginative elements.
In the present work Simmons creates an entire civilization of varying "species" of fairies: some fly with fluttering, gossamer wings, and others ride mice-driven chariots or leathery bats, with pale, attenuated bodies gleaming in the moonlight. Such a brilliant ability to "realistically" describe each element of these tiny figures was perhaps a result of the artist's experience as a miniature painter. The work's finely captured detail actually allows for an expansive study of the subject, as if the viewer were peering through a microscope to examine the fairies' various costumes and anatomies. This was perfectly suited for the Victorian viewer; many believed in fairies as real-life specimens of minute perfection, and often went on "scientific expeditions" to find the creatures. Joining the fairy population in the present work are Shakespeare's forbidden lovers Lysander and Hermia, who have fled the Athenian court and must travel through the enchanted wood to find safe haven. Simmons' composition records the moment in Midsummer's Act II, Scene II in which Lysander and Hermia find themselves lost and decide to sleep, oblivious to the surrounding multitude of fairies and woodland creatures. Lysander holds Hermia's ringed finger in one hand, the other touching the loamy moss of the forest floor explaining "One turf shall serve as pillow for us both;/One heart, one bed, two bosoms, and one troth" (Act II.ii, 41-2). Upon waking, Lysander will fall in love with Helena (perhaps the figure in the distance to Hermia's right), the result of a potion applied by the mischievous fairy Puck (who may be among the retinue at their feet, or perhaps he is the shadowy figure lurking at center left).
Like the lovers lost in the wood, the viewer of the present work is transported into a world of sensual pleasures, one vivified by Simmons' meticulous observation of nature and intricate painterly technique. A talented watercolorist, Simmons uses the medium to fill the surface with hazy, dreamlike swabs of saturated color, and employs more heavily bodied gouache to create shape and form, mixing the earth-bound with the light-hearted and playful. As such, he succeeds in creating an atmospheric, nuanced peek into a romantic world outside the troubles of mundane reality.
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