We all know Shakespeare was a man of words. Over 400 years after the Bard magically wrote his word masterpieces, look all around us: his words continue to be spoken aloud, they are spoken through sign language, they appear in printed form, and they even appear on some very cool t-shirts.
Now, in a celebration of 400 years of Shakespeare, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. is taking a different approach by presenting Painting Shakespeare, a free exhibition that combines the power of Shakespeare as seen through his words and paintings, as well as Shakespeare-related art and memorabilia. It opened on May 13 and continues through February 11, 2018. This remarkable collection has been placed in a building space that's adjacent to both the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill, and includes space for researchers, as well as an intimate theater and a lovely exhibition hall.
Through nine different sections, from "Looking Back in Time" to "Imagining Shakespeare" to "Lost and Found," there were twenty-one selections from the Folger Shakespeare Library collection of paintings showcased in the exhibition hall that try to portray the Bard for our own eyes.
"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," I learned, reading an introductory panel that was displayed at the beginning of Painting Shakespeare. "They also collected scrapbooks, posters, programs, figurines, prints, drawings, and photographs."
I spent about an hour walking through Painting Shakespeare, carefully stopping at each area to observe and discover something interesting or unique about each painting – and to study their stories and glories. Let's see, among the memorable paintings I discovered were: Dexter Portrait of Shakespeare, a 19th century oil on canvas by an unknown British painter; The Awakening of King Lear, circa 1792 from King Lear (act 4, scene 7), an oil on canvas by the 18th century British painter Robert Smirke; and Macbeth Meeting the Witches, 1760 from Macbeth (act 1, scene 3), an oil on panel by the 18th century Italian painter Francesco Zuccarelli. One should also take time to look at Henry Fuseli's gothic masterpiece Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head that was painted for the Irish Shakespeare Gallery in Dublin in 1793, and is presented in its original frame.
Throughout Painting Shakespeare, visitors are encouraged to share their own personal experiences and connections with Shakespeare and his works. Just because the people in the paintings are standing still doesn't mean we have to, right?
Imagine, using a smartphone or other device to record and share short videos, answering one of these questions:
• When did you first read or see Shakespeare?
• Which words and lines from Shakespeare do you love the most and why?
• Which Shakespeare character speaks to you and why?
The power of Shakespeare allows us to connect with his works and, now, thanks to the Folger Shakespeare Library, through the art of painting, too.