On a trip to London in 1894, Nast received a commission from his English friend Henry Irving, the greatest Shakespearean actor and producer of the past quarter-century. Irving, who would be knighted a year later, and Nast knew each other well from their previous trans-Atlantic travels, and shared a deep appreciation of Shakespeare’s characters and plays with each other.
So when the two experts dined at Irving’s club one evening after theatre, Nast suggested painting a tribute to their idol, and Irving sparked to the idea. On July 20, 1895, Irving responded to Nast’s preliminary sketch with perhaps the cheeriest encouragement in the artist’s last decade: “Love and greetings, old friend. Delighted at the suggestion. Paint it for me.”
Nast’s dark setting for The Immortal Light of Genius was the small room where Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564. The only light emanated from the smoldering logs in the fireplace behind his bust. Two hard-to-discern spirits — Comedy, dressed as a jester, and Tragedy, in Roman garb — advanced to lay laurel wreaths on the bust’s brow.
The picture was completed on the bard’s 332nd birthday, April 26, 1896, and presented to the William Winter Memorial on Staten Island, where it was later destroyed by fire.
Nast also painted a replica the following year, borrowing the original from Mr. Winter to do so. It passed through private hands, fell into poor condition, and ultimately was acquired and restored by the Morristown and Morris Township Public Library, where it hangs today.