Painting Shakespeare

Current Exhibition
May 13, 2017 – Feb 11, 2018
Mon–Sat: 10am–5pm | Sun: noon–5pm
Discover the paintings collection at the Folger—its stories, its glories, and Shakespeare’s power to inspire visual artists. From humble oil sketches to international masterpieces, this exhibition presents kids and adults alike, with a sometimes surprising, and always eye-catching, view of the man and his works.
Painting Shakespeare exhibition - Henry Fuseli's Macbeth
Shakespeare was a man of words. Over 400 years after he wrote them, his words continue to be spoken aloud, spoken in sign language, printed on the page, and printed on T-shirts. This exhibition invites you to explore how Shakespeare's words can be represented in pictures, too, by showcasing selections from the collection of paintings at the Folger Shakespeare Library. 
It might seem unusual for a library to have a paintings collection, but Henry and Emily Folger knew that it takes more than books and manuscripts alone to understand Shakespeare and his era. They also collected scrapbooks, posters, programs, figurines, prints, drawings, and photographs. Then they placed this collection in a building that included not only space for researchers, but also a theater and an exhibition hall.
Erin Blake

European Month of Culture 2017

This program is part of the European Month of Culture #EUMC2017


View Image Assets
Henry Fuseli's "Macbeth Confronting the Vision of the Armed Head" in Painting Shakespeare
Item Title: 
Henry Fuseli. Macbeth consulting the vision of the armed head. Oil on canvas with original inscribed frame, 1793
Item Call Number: 
FPa27, with frame
Item Creator: 
Fuseli, Henry, 1741-1825.
Item Date: 

Some paintings in the collection stand out as great works of art in their own right, even though they are primarily important to the Folger for their Shakespeare content. Henry Fuseli's gothic masterpiece Macbeth Confronting the Vision of the Armed Head draws on his fascination with fantasy, terror, and the supernatural. Painted for the Irish Shakespeare Gallery in Dublin in 1793, it is still in its original frame.


View Image Assets
Umberto Romano's "Shakespeare Recites Shakespeare"
Umberto Romano (American, 1905–82). Shakespeare Recites Shakespeare, circa 1960s. Oil on canvas, 127.3 x 102 cm. Gift of Mrs. Clorinda Romano, widow of the artist, and Robin Romano, their son, 1984.
Item Title: 
Umberto Romano. Shakespeare recites Shakespeare. Oil on canvas, ca. 1960s
Item Call Number: 
Item Creator: 
Romano, Umberto, 1905-1982, artist
Item Date: 
ca. 1960s

How do you represent the man named Shakespeare if you've never seen him with your own eyes? Umberto Romano reinterpreted the iconic Chandos portrait through the lens of modern art, surrounding the man with an abstract field of swirling paint in Shakespeare Recites Shakespeare.


View Image Assets
The Zuccaro Shakespeare
Item Title: 
Portrait of an unknown man (the Zuccaro Shakespeare)
Item Call Number: 
Item Creator: 
Item Date: 
ca. 1615-20.

Though still referred to as The Zuccaro Shakespeare, we now know  the artist was not Federico Zuccaro (1540/41–1609), and the sitter was not Shakespeare. Someone in the 18th century painted a heavy mustache, pointy beard, small earring, and the inscription "W Shakespeare" to disguise a now-unknown man. Conservation treatment in 1988 restored the painting to its original look.


View Image Assets
Copy of Thomas Gainsborough's "David Garrick Leaning on a Bust of Shakespeare"
Unknown British painter after Thomas Gainsborough (British, 1727–88). David Garrick Leaning on a Bust of Shakespeare, after 1769. Oil on canvas, 114.3 x 76 cm. Folger FPb27. Purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Folger, 1926.
Item Title: 
David Garrick leaning on a bust of Shakespeare
Item Call Number: 
Item Date: 
After 1769

Some paintings in the Folger collection are valuable as echos of other works of art rather than as fine paintings in their own right. This is a copy of Thomas Gainsborough's David Garrick Leaning on a Bust of Shakespeare. The town of Stratford-upon-Avon acquired the original in 1769 in order to commemorate the Shakespeare Jubilee that Garrick organized there that year. It hung in the Town Hall, and was destroyed when that building caught fire in 1946.


View Image Assets
Francesco Zuccarelli's "Macbeth Meeting the Witches"

Francesco Zuccarelli. Macbeth Meeting the Witches. Oil on canvas, 1760. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Item Title: 
Macbeth meeting the witches [graphic] / Zuccarelli fecit / 1760.
Item Call Number: 
Item Creator: 
Zuccarelli, Francesco, 1702-1788, artist.
Item Date: 

Instead of Shakespeare's "blasted heath" in Scotland, the characters in Francesco Zuccarelli's Macbeth Meeting the Witches appear in the kind of fantasy landscape typically associated with 18th-century Italy.


View Image Assets
Francis Hayman's The play scene from "Hamlet"
Item Title: 
The play scene from "Hamlet" [graphic] / by Francis Hayman.
Item Call Number: 
Item Creator: 
Hayman, Francis, 1708-1776, artist.
Item Date: 
ca. 1745

Not every painting at the Folger was intended to hang on a wall. Francis Hayman's The play scene from "Hamlet" is a painted sketch that was never meant to be displayed. The lack of detail that comes across as spontaneity today would have made it look unfinished to an eighteenth-century viewer. Oil sketches like this allowed the artist to work out poses, groupings, and coloring before embarking on the full-size work.


View Image Assets
The Awakening of King Lear by Robert Smirke
Robert Smirke (British, 1752–1845). The Awakening of King Lear, circa 1792, from King Lear (act 4, scene 7). Oil on canvas, 78.7 x 54 cm. Folger FPa53. Purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Folger, 1922.
Item Title: 
The awakening of King Lear [graphic] / by Robert Smirke.
Item Call Number: 
Item Creator: 
Smirke, Robert, 1752-1845, artist.
Item Date: 
ca. 1792.

King Lear, woken by Cordelia's kiss, is scared and confused, unsure whether he is alive or dead. Instead of emphasizing the fear, Robert Smirke's Awakening of King Lear foreshadows a happy reunion by placing father and daughter together in a stable pyramid at the base of the picture.

Meet the Curator

Erin Blake

Erin Blake is Head of Collection Information Services at the Folger, where she previously served 14 years as Curator of Art. She was chief editor of Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Graphics), the national standard for art cataloging in libraries, and is a faculty member of Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, where she teaches “Introduction to the History of Book Illustration” every summer. Erin holds a B.A. (Hons.) in History and Art History from Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, and a Ph.D. in Art History from Stanford University.

Plan Your Visit
Folger Shakespeare Library
201 East Capitol Street
Washington, DC 20003
The Folger is located one block east of the US Capitol.  
Hours and Admission
Monday through Saturday: 10am–5pm
Sunday: noon–5pm
Admission is free.
Monday – Saturday at 11am, 1pm, and 3pm; Sunday at 12pm and 3pm

Folger docents offer guided tours of the exhibition, as well as the Folger’s national landmark building, free of charge. No advance reservations required. 
Wednesday at 12pm; Saturday at 2pm

Folger docents offer a special exhibition-focused tour, free of charge. No advance reservations required. 
Docent-led tours of the exhibition, as well as the Folger’s national landmark building, are offered for groups of 10 or more. To arrange, please call (202) 675–0395. 
Parking Information
The Folger does not have a visitor parking lot, and only limited street parking is available in the surrounding area. The Folger recommends taking public transportation: the two closest Metro stations are Union Station (Red Line) and Capitol South (Orange/Blue/Silver).
The parking meters closest to the Folger have a 2-hour limit and are enforced until 10 pm Monday through Saturday. Limited unmetered street parking is available on residential streets near the Folger. Please read the parking signs carefully should you choose to park in an unmetered area. Allow ample time to find a parking space.
On weekdays, paid parking may be available at the National Capital Bank on Pennsylvania Avenue, near Third Street. Paid parking is also available at Union Station, a short taxi ride from the Folger.
Visitors displaying the international symbol of accessibility may park in three spaces on East Capitol Street just before Third Street, outside the Elizabethan Theatre entrance.
Watch a Behind-the-Scenes Video

Book List

These titles are included in a book cart as part of the exhibition:

Learn about art

Shakespeare in Art, by Jane Martineau

A Catalogue of Paintings in the Folger Shakespeare Library: "As Imagination Bodies Forth”, by William L. Pressly

Have fun

Doodling for Bookworms: 50 inspiring doodle prompts and creative exercises for literature, by Gemma Correll

Engage your kids

William Shakespeare & the Globe, by Aliki

The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse, by Eric Carle

Will’s Quill: or, How a Goose Saved Shakespeare, by Don Freeman

Pantone: Colors Board Book, by Pantone

The Dot, by Peter H. Reynolds

Beautiful Oops!, by Barney Saltzberg

Kid Artists: True Tales of Childhood from Creative Legends, by David Stabler

Mix it Up, by Herve Tullet

13 Art Techniques Children Should Know, by Angela Wenzel

Tales from Shakespeare, by Marcia Williams

More Tales from Shakespeare, by Marcia Williams

Shakespeare’s Stories for Young Readers (Dover’s Children’s Classics)

The Tempest For Kids, by Lois Burdett

Macbeth for Kids, by Lois Burdett

Twelfth Night for Kids, by Lois Burdett and Christine Coburn