The American colonist Benjamin West settled in London in 1763 and became the second president of Great Britain’s Royal Academy of Arts. Academicians like West were attracted to Shakespeare, not only for the enormous visual potential offered by his dramatic subjects but for nationalistic associations with great English literature. West’s picture, illustrating Act 4, Scene 5 from "Hamlet," was painted for a large speculative project organized in London in the 1790s. Each of the project’s paintings represented a scene from a Shakespeare play. The promoters of the scheme then reproduced the paintings as prints, to be sold to finance the project. The project was a failure, however, and the paintings were sold in 1805.
The American artist and inventor Robert Fulton bought "Ophelia and Laertes." After Fulton’s death, his heirs sold it to Cincinnati’s Nicholas Longworth. It was the first work by a major artist to come to Cincinnati, and it is a venerable document of the city’s cultural heritage.