The Folger art collection includes paintings and sculptures, works on paper, illustrated books, craft items, and more. Only part of the art collection relates directly to Shakespeare and his works, but even so, it is the world’s largest collection of Shakespearean art. Some highlights of the collection are shown here, with more information about the scope of our art collection below.
Dated 1579, this portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by George Gower (ca. 1540–1596) is the oldest painting in the Folger collection. The sieve in her left hand represents her status as “The Virgin Queen” by association with Tuccia, the ancient Roman Vestal Virgin who was said to have carried water in a sieve to prove her chastity. The globe in the upper left sybolizes Elizabeth’s imperial ambition. Two years after he completed this portrait, Gower became Serjeant Painter to the Queen, making him the most important artist in England.
Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) has a well-deserved reputation for fantastical and nightmarish pictures like this life-size painting from Macbeth, dating to 1793. The Three Witches gesture with bony hands from behind their cauldron while the vision of the armed head warns “Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! Beware Macduff!” (4.1.81) and Macbeth himself recoils in horror.
Wenceslaus Hollar (1607–1677) may have made this etched portrait of a young African woman from life, as the sight of Africans was not uncommon in Europe at the time. The young woman’s clothes indicate that she probably worked as a servant. Hollar’s depiction of his sitter’s face conveys sympathy and is less conventional than profile representations that were used at the time to typify Africans by their physical traits. The Folger has two other etchings representing Africans made by Hollar. These are part of the Library’s extensive collection of his prints. It includes single sheet prints (such as the one on display here) and prints in books representative of Hollar’s large body of work as a book illustrator.
This sketch is one of many hundreds at the Folger by British artist George Romney (1734–1802). Although he made his living as a portrait painter, Romney was fascinated by Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s stories as a subject for art. Here, we see King Lear crouched on the ground, cradling the dead body of his daughter, Cordelia. The composition closely resembles Renaissance representations of the Lamentation of Christ, where Jesus’s mother, Mary, holds his body while Mary Magdalene mourns at his feet.
American theater manager and playwright Augustin Daly (1838–1899) had a unique way of commemorating his productions. He collected pictures, letters, and ephemera connected with the play, but instead of turning them into a scrapbook, he commissioned a professional inlayer to mount the material into paper “windows” and interleave them with similarly-mounted pages from the printed edition of his production’s script. Then he had the whole thing specially bound. In other words, he made extra-illustrated copies of the text. What would normally have been a thin little printed book was transformed into a gigantic volume (or two). Here we see a watercolor costume design for Daly’s 1891 New York production of Love’s Labors Lost.
This 16th-century engraving from a set of 20 called Nova Reperta (New Discoveries) celebrates eyeglasses as one of the great inventions of the modern world. The only people in the marketplace not obviously using glasses are the man selling them on the left, and the three children. Other discoveries and inventions depicted in the set include the printing press, the compass, the clock, and gunpowder; you can explore the full set of Nova Reperta prints in our digital image collection.
Unusually for a woman in the 18th century, Caroline Watson (1760/61–1814) worked independently as a printmaker, under her own name. In this print from 1795, she reproduces Francis Wheatley’s painting of the chess scene from The Tempest, one of the works exhibited at the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, Britain’s first public art gallery. The gallery’s owners commissioned the finest printmakers in the country to reproduce the paintings as frameable prints.
David Garrick, the noted 18th-century actor, commissioned a sculpture of Shakespeare to be included in his Shakespeare Temple at his home in Hampton. This terracotta study (about 22 inches high) was made by French sculptor Louis François Roubiliac in 1757 in preparation for the life-sized marble statue, with Garrick himself serving as the model for the dramatic pose. This statue is an excellent example of how Shakespeare the man has been romanticized over the centuries. Roubiliac clearly attempted to capture creative contemplation, with the figure posed, pen in hand, gazing thoughtfully into the distance. The final marble version that was carved for Garrick's home (and now at the British Library) is more tranquil: the eyes are less animated, and the left hand has moved so that it supports Shakespeare's chin rather than distorting his face.
This pen-and-ink drawing by Wyndham Lewis (1882–1957) was originally intended to illustrate an edition of Timon of Athens. Thanks to logistical complications, Lewis’s drawings were instead issued as a portfolio of prints in 1913. Nine of Lewis’s Timon drawings, including one that was never published, can be found in the Folger collection and explored online. With their abstracted figures and sharp geometric forms, all exemplify the artistic style that came to be known as Vorticism.
An overview of the art collection
The Folger has about 200 paintings. A few date to Shakespeare’s day, like the Plimpton "Sieve" portrait of Elizabeth I by George Gower, dated 1579. Most are from the 18th and 19th centuries, including paintings by Henry Fuseli, Benjamin West, George Romney, and Thomas Nast. Among its most important paintings is Fuseli's Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head, from 1793. More than half of the Folger paintings depict scenes from Shakespeare's plays.
Other Folger paintings are portraits of Shakespeare, perhaps the largest such collection in the world. Only two images of Shakespeare are widely considered authentic, in the sense that friends or family members must have approved them—the engraving in the First Folio and the memorial bust at Stratford. The Folger portraits, instead, show wishful thinking about the identities of now-unknown men and how artists over time imagined Shakespeare's appearance.
Works on paper
The Folger collection houses an estimated 80,000 works on paper, including drawings, sketches, watercolors, photographs, and prints. These include more than 2,000 works by the 17th-century artist Wenceslaus Hollar, about 600 in the art collection and the rest in period books. The Folger collection of drawings by George Romney is the second largest in North America and the third largest in the world.
The collection also holds original works on paper by George Cruikshank, Francis Hayman, and John Massey Wright and early prints by Hans Vredeman de Vries, the van de Passe family, Abraham Bosse, and Romeyn de Hooghe. About 8,000 prints from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries depict scenes from Shakespeare's plays. You can find many of them in the Digital Image Collection by play, act, and scene, or by character; you can also browse images from the plays through their pages in Shakespeare’s Works.
Books and sculpture
The Folger's collection of art books includes fine-press books, comic books, extra-illustrated volumes, and artists' books. Extra-illustration, which was popular in the 19th century, means adding other items, like portraits and letters, to an existing book, sometimes in such quantities that the book was rebound in multiple volumes. Artists' books, often produced in only one copy, are works of modern art, sometimes resembling sculpture more than traditional book structure.
The most important sculpture in the collection is Louis François Roubiliac's terracotta figure of Shakespeare, dated 1757. It is the scale model for the life-size marble statue now at the British Library.