Painting Shakespeare

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.

Curator's Insights | Explore Paintings

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

Henry Fuseli's "Macbeth Confronting the Vision of the Armed Head" in Painting Shakespeare

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.

Umberto Romano's "Shakespeare Recites Shakespeare"

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.

The Zuccaro Shakespeare

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.

Copy of Thomas Gainsborough's "David Garrick Leaning on a Bust of Shakespeare"

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.

Francesco Zuccarelli's "Macbeth Meeting the Witches"

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.

Francis Hayman's The play scene from "Hamlet"

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.

The Awakening of King Lear by Robert Smirke

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