Art in the reading rooms
This article lists and gives an orientation to the works of art on display in the reading rooms at the Folger Shakespeare Library from the 1990s to 20202. For more information on the paintings, consult the Folgerpedia article List of paintings at the Folger in the Pressly Catalogue. The letter and number system below corresponds to the following image, click to enlarge.
Other items of interest in the reading rooms include the pair of 19th century globes at the main entrance (replicas of Renaissance globes), the stained glass windows, and the decorative woodwork.
Art in the Paster Reading Room
A. James Northcote (1708–1776)
Romeo and Juliet, act V, scene III. Monument belonging to the Capulets: Romeo and Paris dead, Juliet and Friar Laurence
1790 (for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery)
Juliet has just awoken from her feigned death. She looks up at Friar Lawrence, asking expectantly, “Where is my Romeo?” not yet realizing that he lies dead at her feet. The painting measures nine by eleven feet, and is the Folger’s only “large format” painting from the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery. As the first public art gallery in Britain, and the first to sell high-quality engravings of its works, the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery’s influence on perceptions of Shakespeare was huge. The Folger holds eleven Boydell paintings, the largest collection re-assembled since the Gallery’s 160 paintings were sold by lottery in 1805.
B. The Repast
French or Flemish tapestry
The two heavily-faded tapestries on this wall tell middle of the love story of Gombault and Macée, a fashionable subject for tapestry sets in the 16th and 17th centuries . Here, the young shepherd and shepherdess take part in a rustic picnic.
C. The Betrothal
French or Flemish tapestry
An elderly shepherd presides over Gombault and Macée’s engagement. An astrologer stands at the far right. Eventually, they get married and live happily ever after.
D. Frank O. Salisbury
Portrait of Emily Jordan Folger
Mr. and Mrs. Folger’s likenesses by English “society” portraitist Frank O. Salisbury show their devotion to learning and to Shakespeare. Mrs. Folger wears the robe and hood of her Master’s degree from Vassar College. The hand-painted eighteenth-century fan in her hand depicts the wedding scene from Shakespeare’s Henry V; it is now part of the library’s extensive art collection.
E. Replica of the Stratford Memorial Bust
19th-century replica of an early 17th-century original
This painted plaster portrait reproduces the original painted limestone one that forms part of Shakespeare’s memorial in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. It and the Droeshout portrait on the First Folio title page are the only widely-accepted authentic likenesses of Shakespeare, since they were known to have been commissioned by friends and family. The original was whitewashed in the 18th century to give it a more classical look; later, the original colors were restored by removing the whitewash. This replica is slightly too large for its niche, so the elbows had to be shaved off when it was installed in 1932.
F. Frank O. Salisbury
Portrait of Henry Clay Folger
Wearing the robe and hood of his Amherst College honorary doctorate, Mr. Folger holds an edition of ten Shakespeare plays known as the “Pavier quartos,” published in 1619. This copy is especially precious because it is still in the first owner’s binding of simple brown calf with his name, Edward Gwynn, stamped in gilt letters. It is now stored two floors below, in the library’s underground vault, near the 82 First Folios.
G. The Poet
late 17th or early 18th century
This tapestry focuses on the large figure of a poet (probably Virgil) reading. A smaller figure bearing a torch stands nearby, with a background of city, river, and several more small figures.
H. Allegorical figures
early 16th century
Three crowned female figures represent strength (on the left), knowledge (in the center), and faith (on the right). This tapestry was a gift from Folger benefactor Mary Weinmann in memory of her grandmother, Ethel Sperry Crocker.
Art in the Bond Reading Room
1. Francis Hayman (1708–1776)
The play scene from Hamlet
In addition to painting theatrical subjects, Hayman was a scene painter in London theaters and may have also performed as an actor. He likely had Frederick, Prince of Wales, in mind when he chose to paint this scene from Hamlet. The prince and his parents, King George II and Queen Caroline, were not close. Frederick was a central figure of opposition to his father at court and the king and queen both detested him. The fictional royal family tension in Hamlet brought to mind the tension in the English royal family at that time.
2. Thomas Stothard (1755–1834)
Marina singing before Pericles
Pericles, grieving the loss of his wife and daughter, has spoken to no one for months. Marina, an accomplished maiden from the town where Pericles’ ship is anchored, comes aboard to sing and try to rouse the king from his depression. Upon hearing Marina’s tragic story, Pericles realizes that she is his daughter, alive after all. Stothard, known for painting young, pretty women, uses soft lines and curves to depict an entrancing, harmonious setting.
3. Thomas Stothard (1755–1834)
A woman with a distaff joins a central mother figure and her two children to create a theme of feminine domesticity in this pastoral scene. An elderly woman, crouched at left with her cane in hand, evokes the Three Ages of Man and reminds viewers of human mortality. Stothard was a kind and gentle man beset by tragedies, including severe personal injury and the early deaths of his wife and several children. He celebrates life’s joy and sadness in this, one of his final paintings.
4. Unknown artist
Actor in the character of Othello
Late nineteenth century
This man looks to be an actor portraying Othello, as evidenced by his costume, his dark skin, and his troubled expression. The figure’s generalized features do not point to any actor in particular, however. This painting came to Folger as a gift from Mrs. William M. Hanney in 1942, but little else is known of its source or provenance.
5. John Francis Rigaud (1742–1810)
Constantia revealing herself to her father (from Chaucer, “The man of law’s tale”)
An eleven-foot wide version of this painting was commissioned for Thomas Macklin’s British Poets’ Gallery, a showcase of one hundred paintings illustrating British poems. This picture could be a preliminary study, but is more likely a reduced version for use when creating an engraving after the original. Rigaud’s wife was the model for the female figure with her arms stretched above Constantia’s head, a fact revealed by comparison with portraits of Mrs. Rigaud.
6. Robert Edge Pine (d. 1788)
Pine had a quarrelsome nature that prevented him from being a central figure in England’s art community during his lifetime. The majority of his paintings were portraits, including theatrical portraits, and this is one of several he painted of David Garrick. Feeling that his talents were unappreciated in his native England, Pine settled in Philadelphia in 1784 and shifted from portraiture to American Revolution scenes in his later years.
7. Unknown artist
Portrait of Shakespeare
Early nineteenth century
The crudeness of this nineteenth-century forgery may have been a deliberate effort to increase its appearance of authenticity. The two-dimensional torso seems to have been based on William Marshall’s engraved frontispiece from the 1640 edition of Shakespeare’s Poems. Sotheby’s sale catalog suggests that the unknown artist of this work was from Westminster. The spelling “Gulielmo Shakspere” in this painting’s inscription points to the same conclusion, as the inscription on the Shakespeare statue in Westminster Abbey uses a similar Latinized spelling.
8. Unknown artist
The Beadle portrait of Shakespeare
Early nineteenth century
Clara Simonson, the owner who sold this work to the Library in 1935, believed it was once owned by the Reverend Samuel Beadle (1555–1615) of Suffolk. It is now considered to be a nineteenth-century attempt to create a seventeenth-century-style portrait based on the Droeshout engraving from the First Folio title page. The gothic frame was commissioned in Philadelphia by Virginia Bedell Topham, an American relative of the English Beadles who inherited the painting in 1873.
9. William Page
Portrait of Shakespeare
Page’s wish to create a spiritual likeness of Shakespeare consumed him in his later years. In his attempt to reveal Shakespeare’s inner soul, Page consulted the First Folio’s Droeshout engraving, the Chandos portrait, and the Stratford bust. He found it difficult to reconcile the three depictions into a true likeness and finally turned to photographs of the newly discovered Darmstadt death mask for inspiration. A pilgrimage to see the mask in Germany a year after this portraits’ completion confirmed his faith in its authenticity. The death mask has since been discredited.
10. Nathaniel Dance (1735–1811)
Garrick met Dance when visiting Rome in 1764 and considered him a great genius. Dance depicts Garrick here not as an actor or stage manager, but as a private man reading a copy of Macbeth. The choice of reading material is significant. Garrick famously staged the play as close as possible to Shakespeare’s original text after seventy years of more lavish productions with singing, dancing, comedy, and flying witches. Garrick was proud of his interpretation and it may have been his preference to be depicted with the play in hand.
11. Thomas Sully
Portrait of Shakespeare
Towards the end of Sully’s career, his work did not match the quality of his earlier paintings. His portrait commissions declined as a result. With fewer portraits to paint from life, he turned his attention to historic figures. This portrait was quickly executed but still manages to convey a sensitive, melancholic personality. It is the second of Sully’s two Shakespeare portraits. Considering the thirty-two paintings of George Washington that Sully completed in 1871 alone, Shakespeare does not seem to have been one of the artist’s more popular subjects.
12. Unknown artist
The Zuccaro Shakespeare (i.e. Portrait of an Unknown Man)
This authentic Jacobean portrait was misidentified as Shakespeare and misattributed to Italian painter Federigo Zuccaro when it surfaced in the nineteenth century. Shakespeare was eleven years old at the time of Zuccaro’s only visit to England, so this portrait could not have been painted then. Before the painting’s restoration in 1988, Shakespeare’s name was inscribed in the upper right corner and the figure sported a pointed beard and moustache. These details were added in the nineteenth century by an enterprising artist attempting to reinvent the portrait as one of Shakespeare.
13. Unknown artist
Janssen portrait of Shakespeare (i.e. Sir Thomas Overbury?)
Early 1610s, altered before 1770
Known most frequently as the Jannsen Portrait of Shakespeare, this work first reappeared as an engraved frontispiece to a 1770 edition of King Lear. Only the second painting to claim to be an authentic portrait of Shakespeare from life, it portrays the Bard as a sensitive, refined aristocrat in elegant attire. It is now believed to be an authentic Jacobean portrait, perhaps of the poet Sir Thomas Overbury, retouched with a raised hairline. It is the earliest known example of a painting specifically altered to masquerade as a Shakespeare portrait.
14. Unknown artist
The Lumley Shakespeare
An 1864 exhibition catalog placed this painting in the collection of John, Lord Lumley, of Lumley Castle, Durham, who died in 1609. The painting was not mentioned in any of Lumley’s inventories, however, and appears to be an eighteenth-century work based on the Chandos portrait and the Droeshout engraving. Henry Folger doubted the Lumley provenance and did not purchase the portrait when it went up for sale in May of 1922. Mr. Folger ultimately did make the purchase a month later, after art expert Frank H.G. Keeble wrote to him confidently misidentifying the artist as Richard Burbage.
15. Unknown artist
The Dexter portrait of Shakespeare
Elias Dexter, an art dealer in New York, purchased this painting around 1864 from an unknown woman to whom the painting had passed by descent. Dexter’s son listed titles of the books on the shelves behind Shakespeare in his notes about the painting, but it appears that he may have been interpreting light and shadow rather than actual text included by the artist.
16. William Hogarth (1697–1764)
The president’s chair of the Shakespeare Club
This elaborately-carved mahogany chair was designed by William Hogarth for David Garrick – actor, writer, theater manager, entrepreneur, international celebrity, and the man often credited with creating the modern cult of Shakespeare. Garrick displayed the chair in the “Temple to Shakespeare” at his country house outside London.
17. Henry Fuseli (1741–1825)
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough
So sings the spirit Ariel in Act V of The Tempest when the magician Prospero sets him free. No longer in Prospero’s service, Ariel flies above the lovers he brought together, joyfully balanced on a bat’s back. Ferdinand and Miranda remain below, oblivious, bound to the Earth and to each other.
18. William Salter (1804–1875)
The final scene was the most frequently illustrated scene from Othello in the nineteenth century, but this painting is the first to portray the particular moment of Othello’s lamentation. Contemporary art critics noted Salter’s difficulties with scale and anatomy, seen here in Othello’s odd twisting and the small size of Emilia and Montano. Criticisms, however, did not discourage Salter from painting and exhibiting another scene from Othello a year later.
19. Robert Smirke (1752–1845)
The awakening of King Lear
circa 1792 (for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery)
Smirke was the most prolific of all the artists working for Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery. This is the only surviving painting of three that he created for Boydell based on King Lear. Reunited with her father before the play’s epic final battle, Cordelia is the focus of this depiction. This is not surprising, given the tragic heroine’s popularity with eighteenth-century audiences.
20. Richard Westall (1766–1836)
1795 (for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery)
Cardinal Wolsey used his great influence in King Henry VIII’s court to wield power and amass fortunes. The scene from Henry VIII depicted here occurs after Wolsey’s letters to the Pope encouraging him to interfere with the king’s divorce fall into the wrong hands. Having read the letters, the king sends noblemen to take back the Great Seal that designates Wolsey as Lord Chancellor. Wolsey refuses to surrender the seal to anyone but the king himself while a sympathetic Lord Chamberlain looks on from the far right.
21. George Romney (1734–1802)
The infant Shakespeare attended by Nature and the Passions
circa 1791–92 (for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery)
It is nature and not nurture who unveils the infant Shakespeare, a nod to the popular eighteenth century conception of Shakespeare as a born genius rather than a taught one. The closest Passions to the child, Joy to the left and Sorrow to the right, double as Comedy and Tragedy. Love and Hate look on from the left with Jealousy hovering above them, while Anger, backed by Envy and Fear, closes in from the right. The use of chiaroscuro and similarity between infant Shakespeare and the Christ Child show the influence of religious paintings.
22. Robert Smirke (1752–1845)
Stephano confronting the monster
circa 1798 (for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery)
The shipwrecked Trinculo, thought by the nearby grotesque Caliban to be a spirit sent by his master, Prospero, takes shelter from the storm under a cloak. Fellow shipwreck survivor Stephano stumbles upon the pair, mistaking them for a four-legged monster. We happen upon the scene just as Stephano pours liquor from his jug for Caliban, who after his first taste decides that Stephano must be a god. Smirke’s treatment of this scene is skilled, as he depicts an impressive number of narrative and character elements in a single focused composition.
23. Richard Westall (1766–1836)
Shylock rebuffing Antonio
1795 (for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery)
Antonio, who cannot repay his loan, stands with his friend Salarino and the jailor in front of Shylock’s house in this scene from The Merchant of Venice. He begs Shylock to reconsider taking a pound of flesh, but is dismissed. Pentimenti clearly show the original background view of Venice looking north from the Piazzetta. Perhaps the artist felt the original architectural background detracted from the figures, or that the setting of Shylock’s house better integrated with earlier scenes from the play.
24. William Salter Herrick (fl. 1852–1886)
Hamlet in the queen’s chamber
William Salter Herrick first exhibited his work at the Royal Academy in 1852, but nothing is known about his life before then. He is mostly known for portraits and “Keepsake Beauty” depictions of literary heroines, particularly tragic ones. This scene of Hamlet in his mother’s chamber was popular among artists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but it is a departure from Herrick’s typical subjects. Hamlet’s mother is painted with natural, not idealized, features, and the dead Polonius and ghostly phantom sit in stark contrast to Herrick’s usual paintings of young beauties.
25. Henry Fuseli (1741–1825)
Fuseli, who often reused canvases, painted this Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream atop a still-visible older picture of a nude woman lying on her front. Conservation in 1979 revealed yet another use of this canvas, a sketch of a group of courtesans on the verso. Puck lecherously eyes a demure fairy who looks away to her right, perhaps indicating that the canvas’s earlier erotically-charged subjects influenced the artist’s interpretation.
26. Louis François Roubiliac (1702–1762)
Bust of Shakespeare
The swirling drapery depicted in this marble bust evokes classical portrait busts, and stands in stark contrast to the brightly-colored, unromantic portrait sculpture in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon (a reproduction of which can be found in the Paster Reading Room). This exalted view of Shakespeare corresponds with his conceptual transition from “a” great English writer to “the” great English writer over the course of the 18th century.
27. George Henry Hall (1825–1913)
Malvolio confronting the revelers
Hall expands the Twelfth Night scene from his painting of the previous year, Sir Toby Belch (see #30). The steward Malvolio and all of Belch’s drinking companions are present in this second depiction. The emphasis on well-appointed furnishings, continuously flowing drink, and a generally jovial atmosphere remains. Venus and cupids look down from the architecture in the upper right, referencing the role of love in motivating many of the play’s characters.
28. John Cawse (circa 1779–1862)
Falstaff boasting to Prince Hal and Poins
Falstaff, backed by the henchman Bardolph and the innkeeper Mistress Quickly, tells of his adventures fighting off one hundred men while the Prince and Poins try not to laugh at his lies. This scene from Henry IV, Part I comes after Falstaff and three henchman robbed travelers, only to have the money seized by the Prince and Poins in disguise.
29. John Cawse (circa 1779–1862)
Falstaff mocking Bardolph’s nose
Bardolph points at Falstaff, mocking his large belly, while Falstaff remarks on Bardolph’s red nose in this scene from Henry IV Part I. Falstaff looks the hero next to the cowering, cartoonish Bardolph. The artist began his career as a political cartoonist, so it is no surprise that his portrayal of Bardolph leans towards caricature.
30. George Henry Hall (1825–1913)
Sir Toby Belch
Bright colors convey a sense of gaiety in this scene from Twelfth Night. Sir Toby Belch, depicted here in expensive clothes and surrounded by fruit and tankards of drink at Lady Olivia’s house, responds to the steward Malvolio’s complaints about his drunken, off-key singing. The carefree Belch replies with a smile, seeming to take no offense.
31. Francis Wheatley (1747–1801)
Helena and Count Bertram before the King of France
1793 (for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery)
All’s Well That Ends Well was not popular among nineteenth-century audiences or artists. It seems Wheatley disagreed with his contemporaries on the play’s merits, for he created at least four paintings based on the work. In this scene, the King of France allows Helena to choose her own husband as a reward for restoring his health. Her chosen husband, Bertram, dismisses her because of her inferior class, but ultimately acquiesces to the king’s demands.
32. Thomas Sully (1783–1828)
[Macbeth]] in the witches’ cave
Sully was the son of two actors, so his theatrical subject matter is not surprising. This painting is both more dramatic and more freely painted than the artist’s typical compositions. The witches and the fire are sketchily composed; the smoke obscures any details the rest of the scene may have held. Sully notes in his personal painting register that this work was based on an 1822 sketch, so he had been thinking of it for quite some time before its completion.
33. Henry Fuseli (1741–1825)
Faery Mab (from Milton’s “L’Allegro”)
This scene does not depict Queen Mab from Romeo and Juliet, as was thought when the painting sold at auction in 1922, but rather the Faery Mab from John Milton’s L’Allegro. The scene alludes to an old country custom of leaving sweets out at night for visiting fairies. Mab and five smaller fairies imbibe hedonistically, unbound by human social mores.
34. George Romney (1734–1802)
Macbeth and the witches
During the period when this work was painted, the artist often attended readings of Shakespeare by fellow members of his exclusive dining and literary group, the Unincreasables Club. Romney’s 1787 painting Henderson as Macbeth, also in the Folger collection, reveals that the actor John Henderson was a reader at these events. Rather than offering a straightforward depiction of the actor in his theatrical role, this painting evokes the feelings of mystery and horror inspired by Henderson’s performance.
35. after James Green (1771–1834)
George Frederick Cooke as Iago
George Frederick Cooke’s acting career was frequently interrupted by his heavy drinking and chaotic personal affairs. He became the first major British actor to perform in the United States when he arrived in New York in late 1810, but died less than two years later of cirrhosis of the liver. The painting came to Folger identified as Richard III, Cooke’s most famous character. It is in fact based on an 1801 painting of Cooke as Iago by James Green.
36. Unknown artist
Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth
Macbeth’s arm obscures his face, suggesting that the artist did not intend to portray any particular actor, but Lady Macbeth’s imposing stance, expressive eyebrows, and long nose clearly point to Sarah Siddons. Lady Macbeth was Siddons’ signature role, and she reprised it many times over a thirty-year period. Here, Macbeth shows remorse for the murder he has just committed, but Lady Macbeth remains steadfast in her murderous ambition.
37. John Masey Wright (1777–1866)
Petruchio and the tailor
Katherina and a servant stand between Petruchio and a comically depicted tailor in this scene from The Taming of the Shrew. The tailor’s awkward stance and thick glasses contrast with his fine clothing. Perhaps the two men are debating Katherina’s remark, “Belike you to make a puppet of me.” Or perhaps the artist is illustrating Petruchio’s line “For ‘tis the mind that makes the body rich.”
38. after Robert Smirke (1752–1845)
Anne Page inviting Slender to dinner
Early nineteenth century
In this scene from The Merry Wives of Windsor, Anne Page stands at the door of her house and invites her suitor, Slender, to dinner. His servant, Simple, watches from behind. A fragment showing the figure of Anne Page is all that has survived of the original Smirke canvas. It was painted for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery; today the fragment is in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Picture Gallery. This version is likely after one of two engravings, as Anne Page’s veil is red instead of gray, as in the original picture.
39. John Cawse (circa 1779–1862)
Falstaff, Prince Hal, and Mistress Quickly
Mistress Quickly responds to Falstaff’s accusation that she picked his pockets while he slept. Prince Hal sides with the accused in the text of Henry IV Part I, but this is unclear from the picture. Both Falstaff and the Prince seem to enjoy Mistress Quickly’s anger, a detail further evidenced by the artist’s placement of the two men together while the woman stands alone. The Prince stands beneath what may be a tapestry scene of a king, foreshadowing his ascendance to the throne.
40. William Hamilton (1750 or 1751–1801)
Isabella appealing to Angelo
1793 (for Woodmason’s Irish Shakespeare Gallery)
Created for Woodmason’s Irish Shakespeare Gallery, this is one of the first known paintings illustrating Measure for Measure, despite the play’s popularity in the eighteenth century. Other depictions of Isabella show her kneeling before Angelo as she pleads for him to spare her brother’s life, but here she stands tall, confident, and dignified. Hamilton was inspired by the actress Sarah Siddons’ 1783 portrayal of Isabella as heroic rather than submissive, as the character had so often been played before.
41. Rev. Matthew William Peters (1742–1814)
The death of Juliet
1793 (for Woodmason’s Irish Shakespeare Gallery)
This depiction of Juliet mimics Baroque images of saints, a merging of Christian and secular that occurred in the painter’s life as well as his art. In addition to being a successful painter, Peters also served as a clergyman in the Church of England. He resigned his Royal Academy membership in 1788 to concentrate on his ecclesiastical career, but continued to contribute artworks to the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery and the Irish Shakespeare Gallery. He created this, one of his finest paintings, years after he left the Academy.
42. Henry Fuseli (1741–1825)
Macbeth consulting the vision of the armed head
1793 (for Woodmason’s Irish Shakespeare Gallery)
Of the five works Fuseli created for James Woodmason’s Irish Shakespeare Gallery, two illustrated the artist’s favorite play, Macbeth. Here, Fuseli’s depiction of the armed head as a doppelganger of Macbeth adds an unsettling element to this painting, which the artist considered one of his “best poetical conceptions.”
43. Henry Fuseli (1741–1825)
Romeo stabs Paris at the bier of Juliet
Romeo and Juliet was the most frequently performed Shakespeare play in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Fuseli was the first to paint the duel between Romeo and Paris from Act V. He uses light and shadow to convey the duality of the doomed lovers: though Juliet lies in a tomb and Romeo is alive and active, Juliet is a source of heavenly light that contrasts with Romeo’s shadowy darkness.
44. Henry Fuseli (1741–1825)
The two murderers of the Duke of Clarence
Though the image looks as if it could have been cropped from a larger work, a preparatory drawing confirms that Fuseli intended to focus on the facial expressions of these unnamed characters from Richard III. Sent by Richard to murder his brother George, Duke of Clarence, the two men have very different reactions to the gruesome task at hand. The man on the left leans excitedly into the light with wide eyes, but his reluctant companion recedes into the background with a grim, worried expression. Fuseli based the expressions on Johann Kaspar Lavater’s contemporary studies of physiognomy.