Oil on canvas, 21 x 25 inches. Smith College Museum of Art, Massachusetts.
Lady Constance learns in Act III, Scene i of King John that her French and Austrian allies have deserted her to join forces with John. Her son Prince Arthur, his claim to the throne now dashed, reclines in front of his mother. The Earl of Salisbury has brought her the news and has orders to take her to John; he says, "Pardon me, madam, / I may not go without you to the the kings." Lady Constance replies,
Thou mayst, thou shalt; I will not go with thee:
I will instruct my sorrows to be proud;
For grief is proud and makes his owner stoop.
To me and to the state of my great grief
Let kings assemble; for my grief's so great
That no supporter but the huge firm earth
Can hold it up: here I and sorrows sit;
Here is my throne, bid kings come bow to it.
She then sits upon the ground. Fuseli's painting depicts those few moments after this passage, when Salisbury leans against the wall, seemingly at a loss when she simply refuses to go with him. This can be an effectively dramatic tableau on the stage, for now John and the Kings of France and Austria will enter with their retinues. Constance does not rise from the ground until King Philip of France speaks and she answers him. Fuseli captures in his picture this charged moment of frustration and impasse just before the Kings enter and confront Constance.
King John had been revived at Covent Garden in 1737 and the play was so popular that it was performed often from then on; both Colley Cibber and David Garrick mounted productions in the 1740s. In 1783, the same year that Fuseli exhibited Lady Constance, Arthur and Salisbury, the noted actors Philip Kemble and Sarah Siddons played John and Constance, roles that proved to be mainstays in their repertoire until their retirements in the early nineteenth century. Did Fuseli perhaps see this performance and find the inspiration for his picture?