Folger Shakespeare Library Puts 80,000 Images of Literary Art Online, and They’re All Free to Use


Has a writer ever inspired as many adap­ta­tions and ref­er­ences as William Shake­speare? In the four hun­dred years since his death, his work has pat­terned much of the fab­ric of world lit­er­a­ture and seen count­less per­mu­ta­tions on stage and screen. Less dis­cussed are the visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Shake­speare in fine art and illus­tra­tion, but they are mul­ti­tude. In one small sam­pling, Richard Altick notes in his exten­sive study Paint­ings from Books, that “pic­tures from Shake­speare account­ed for about one fifth—some 2,300—of the total num­ber of lit­er­ary paint­ings record­ed between 1760 and 1900” among British artists.


In the peri­od Altick doc­u­ments, a rapid­ly ris­ing mid­dle class drove a mar­ket for lit­er­ary art­works, which were, “in effect, exten­sions of the books them­selves: they were detached forms of book illus­tra­tion, in which were con­stant­ly assim­i­lat­ed the lit­er­ary and artis­tic tastes of the time.” These works took the form of humor­ous illustrations—such as the As You Like It-inspired satir­i­cal piece at the top from 1824—and much more seri­ous rep­re­sen­ta­tions, like the undat­ed Cur­ri­er & Ives Midsummer-Night’s Dream lith­o­graph above. Now, thanks to the Fol­ger Shake­speare Library, these images, and tens of thou­sands more from their Dig­i­tal Image Col­lec­tion, are avail­able online. And they’re free to use under a CC BY-SA Cre­ative Com­mons license.


As Head of Col­lec­tion Infor­ma­tion Ser­vices Erin Blake explains, “basi­cal­ly this means you can do what­ev­er you want with Fol­ger dig­i­tal images as long as you say that they’re from the Fol­ger, and as long a you keep the cycle of shar­ing going by freely shar­ing what­ev­er you’re mak­ing.” The Folger’s impres­sive repos­i­to­ry has been called “the world’s finest col­lec­tion of Shakespere­an art.” As well as tra­di­tion­al paint­ings and illus­tra­tions, it includes “dozens of cos­tumes and props used in nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Shake­speare pro­duc­tions,” such as the embroi­dered vel­vet cos­tume above, worn by Edwin Booth as Richard III, cir­ca 1870. You’ll also find pho­tographs and scans of “’extra-illus­trat­ed’ books filled with insert­ed engrav­ings, man­u­script let­ters, and play­bills asso­ci­at­ed with par­tic­u­lar actors or pro­duc­tions; and a great vari­ety of sou­venirs, com­ic books, and oth­er ephemera asso­ci­at­ed with Shake­speare and his works.”


In addi­tion to illus­tra­tions and mem­o­ra­bil­ia, the Fol­ger con­tains “some 200 paint­ings” and draw­ings by fine artists like “Hen­ry Fuseli, Ben­jamin West, George Rom­ney, and Thomas Nast, as well as such Eliz­a­bethan artists as George Gow­er and Nicholas Hilliard.” (The strik­ing print above by Fuseli shows Mac­beth’s three witch­es hov­er­ing over their caul­dron.) Great and var­ied as the Folger’s col­lec­tion of Shake­speare­an art may be, it rep­re­sents only a part of their exten­sive hold­ings. You’ll also find in the Dig­i­tal Images Col­lec­tion images of antique book­bind­ings, like the 1532 vol­ume of a work by Agrip­pa von Nettescheim (Hein­rich Cor­nelius), below.


The col­lec­tion’s enor­mous archive of 19th cen­tu­ry prints is an espe­cial treat. Just below, see a print of that tow­er of 18th cen­tu­ry learn­ing, Samuel John­son, who, in his famous pref­ace to an edi­tion of the Bard’s works declared, “Shake­speare is above all writ­ers.” All in all, the immense dig­i­tal col­lec­tion rep­re­sents, writes The Pub­lic Domain Review, “a huge injec­tion of some won­der­ful mate­r­i­al into the open dig­i­tal com­mons.” Already, the Fol­ger has begun adding images to Wiki­me­dia Com­mons for use free and open use in Wikipedia and else­where on the web. And should you some­how man­age, through some vora­cious feat of dig­i­tal con­sump­tion, to exhaust this trea­sure hold of images, you need not fear—they’ll be adding more and more as time goes on.


via The Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Read All of Shakespeare’s Plays Free Online, Cour­tesy of the Fol­ger Shake­speare Library

The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art Puts 400,000 High-Res Images Online & Makes Them Free to Use

Down­load 35,000 Works of Art from the Nation­al Gallery, Includ­ing Mas­ter­pieces by Van Gogh, Gau­guin, Rem­brandt & More

Free Online Shake­speare Cours­es: Primers on the Bard from Oxford, Har­vard, Berke­ley & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Jerry Emanuel says:

    I’m look­ing for pub­lic domain pho­tos of Civ­il Rights lead­ers and oth­er promi­nent African-Amer­i­can lead­ers and celebri­ties for a book I’m writ­ing. Do you have some of these pho­tos on file? Peo­ple like: Adam Clay­ton Pow­ell, Gen­er­als Ben O. Davis, Sr. & Jr., Clara Luper, etc.

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