Open: Folger Shakespeare Library is now available with a selection of more than 8,000 images from the Digital Image Collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library. Provided under Creative Commons licenses, these images illuminate the history and output of Shakespeare and theater in general, from illustrated manuscripts and rare books, costume and stagecraft, to actors’ portraits and miscellanea.

Beginning in 1889, Henry Clay Folger and his wife, Emily Jordan Folger, began to amass rare books and associated media, founding the Folger Shakespeare Library, the world’s leader in Shakespeareana, in 1932. Their success may be gleaned from a handful of outstanding examples across the Open Artstor collection. 

John Austen. Hamlet

John Austen. Hamlet, from a set of 121 original drawings. By 1922. Pen and ink. Image and data provided by the Folger Shakespeare Library. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

In a striking black and white illustration, the British artist John Austen introduced the characters of Hamlet.  Looming over the stage, beneath the inscription dramatis personae (the persons of the drama), Hamlet’s mother Gertrude opens the curtain on the cast. This is among a series of dozens of images, designs for title pages, characters, and marginalia Austen drew for an edition of Hamlet published in 1922 (and gathered as a set on Artstor).

Actors’ portraits from the same period include a lithograph by Pamela Colman Smith of an engaging rendering of the beloved British actress Ellen Terry, celebrated for her interpretations of Shakespeare, in the role of Madame Sans-Gêne, c. 1900, after the play by Victorien Sardou;  the distinctive profile of “La Bernhardt” discerned in an engraving for a costume design by the House of Worth; and an abundance of photographs represented here by a brooding black and white of the Scottish actor Robert Mantell as a venerable and vulnerable King Lear. 

The collection is replete with watercolor illustrations whose sparkling brilliance belies their age. From the famous British illustrator Arthur Rackham, a depiction of the constricted Ariel imprisoned in a tree trunk contrasts with the lyrical rendering showing her airborne on a bat’s wing by the American artist Louis Rhead for a children’s edition of Shakespeare. A French translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream entirely painted in luminous translucent watercolors is among the most remarkable objects in the collection. In 1908, the American Symbolist painter Pinckney Marcius-Simons covered each double-page spread of an 1886 edition with phantasmic visions, allowing the text to penetrate the illustrations.

We encourage you to explore the collection Shakespeare and more, as you like it.

– Nancy Minty, Collections editor