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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.