Painting Shakespeare: Curator's Insights

Enjoy, Engage, and Have Fun with It

"With Shakespeare, and with art, people sometimes feel they should be reverent and silent," says Erin Blake, curator of Painting Shakespeare.
 
This exhibition of Shakespeare paintings, she says, takes the opposite approach. Visitors can "sketch what they see, pose like a painting, and have fun with it." 
 
Blake says that her ideas for the show "started years ago, when I found a photograph of the Folger exhibition hall when it first opened" in 1932. 
 

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Exhibition hall
Item Title: 
Exhibition Gallery looking east (photo)
Item Call Number: 
Folger Archives Black Box 7
Item Creator: 
Horydczak, Theo
Item Date: 
ca. 1935
 
In creating the exhibition, she used the photo to recreate a small part of the hall's original layout, with the same paintings. She also wanted to "recreate the feeling of the hall," which encouraged visitors to linger and talk. The photo is "full of armchairs, with no ropes across the seats," she says, so the chairs were meant to be used.
 
For Painting Shakespeare, she has brought in armchairs and placed visitors' benches in the center of the hall, as in the photo. Next to them, A-frame signs suggest that visitors can sketch the paintings or act out Shakespeare's scenes with props, dress-up costumes, and printed texts. There's even a shelf of books to read.
 
The works of art in this active setting are from the Folger's unparalleled collection of Shakespeare-related paintings. Each one is also of special interest to Blake, who was the Folger curator of art before she became head of collection information services. She wanted to show "the paintings that I like talking about," she says, including paintings that people might not know about, as well as the standout pieces.

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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: 
1793
 
Among the latter is the striking, gothic Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head (1793) by the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli.
 
"That had to be there," she says. "For anyone interested in the fine arts," the painting, in Fuseli's recognizable style, is "an enticement to come."
 
Inspired by the same play, Macbeth Meeting the Witches (1760) by Francesco Zuccarelli "is quite different—a stormy, Italianate painting that I really like, too. It's a rather dark painting, so it needs good light. In the exhibition light," she says, "it looks fabulous." 

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The Zuccaro Shakespeare
Item Title: 
Portrait of an unknown man (the Zuccaro Shakespeare)
Item Call Number: 
FPs29
Item Creator: 
Anonymous
Item Date: 
ca. 1615-20.
 
In addition to scenes from the plays, the exhibition includes images of Shakespeare, which start with a portrait of "not Shakespeare," as Blake says—one of many works once erroneously thought to be Shakespeare portraits. She chose the early 17th-century Portrait of an Unknown Man, once called the "Zuccaro Shakespeare," because it has very good before-and-after pictures.
 
The touched-up version of the painting, which someone altered to look more like Shakespeare, was rather staid, "with a dark mustache and a hint of an earring." When it was restored in 1988, the subject was revealed as "a rakish-looking guy, with wispy beard and mustache, and a long earring." It's much cooler—and more as we'd now like Shakespeare to appear. 
Some of the more imaginative pictures of Shakespeare include the most expensive painting that Henry and Emily Folger acquired, George Romney's The Infant Shakespeare Attended by Nature and the Passions (circa 1791–92). The painting, which resembles a Nativity scene, "is a surprising looking picture, referred to in-house as 'Baby Jesus Shakespeare,'" Blake notes. Yet the work was an important purchase for the Folgers and was reported in the news. "It's an example of how aesthetics change. Now it's a painting that people look at a bit askance." 
 
Romney created the painting for the 18th-century Boydell Shakespeare Gallery in London. Including this work, the Folger now has 12 Boydell paintings, the largest collection in the world. It purchased the 12th example, Richard Westall's Imogen Entering the Cave of Belarius (circa 1795), in 2014, after a collector discovered it at an American estate sale. A scene from the play Cymbeline, it is pictured on one of the sheets meant for coloring—another way to engage with the paintings.
 
"My pick-me-up for the day," says Blake, comes "when I go past the exhibition. I look in and see children doing their coloring or dressing up, adults also coloring or dressing up, and adults enjoying the paintings and talking, all of it making a nice place to hang out." In other words, it's a Shakespeare painting salon, 21st-century Folger style.