Mr. Folger’s most expensive painting

There’s a persistent rumor that “Mr. Folger never paid more than x for a painting.” The value of x depends on who’s telling the story, but it’s generally around $2,000 and is used as evidence that he wasn’t interested in paintings. The rumor probably began with Mr. Folger himself. When negotiating with dealers, he sometimes allows as how he might consider purchasing the item in question, but it’s really not the sort of thing he usually collects, and in any case, he’s never paid more than some small amount for such a thing… You get the idea.

So, is the rumor about paintings true? No. In 1927, he paid over 25 times the legendary $2,000 for The Infant Shakespeare Attended by Nature and the Passions, painted by George Romney (1734-1802). It cost £10,500, which worked out to $51,075.94 the day the bank draft was made.1 

Painting of allegorical figures gathered around a baby

George Romney, 1734-1802. The Infant Shakespeare Attended by Nature and the Passions, ca. 1791-92. Oil on canvas, 43.5 x 203 cm

This picture must have been hugely important to the Folgers. It came within a whisker of the $52,000 purchase price of the most expensive First Folio in the collection, the George Daniel/Burdett-Coutts copy, acquired in 1922. That First Folio, in turn, was orders of magnitude more expensive than Mr. and Mrs. Folger were accustomed to paying for collection items.

The engraved version of the painting, published by the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery in 1799, gives a clearer idea of what’s going on in the allegorical scene:

Engraving of allegorical figures surrounding a baby.

Benjamin Smith after George Romney. The infant Shakespeare attended by Nature and the Passions. London: J. & J. Boydell, 1799. Stipple engraving, 49.5 x 62.5 cm

As described in the print’s caption, which repeats the text of the 1792 edition of Boydell’s Catalogue of the Pictures, &c. in the Shakspeare Gallery, “Nature is represented with her face unveiled to her favourite Child, who is placed between Joy and Sorrow. On the Right-Hand of Nature are Love, Hatred, and Jealousy; on her Left-Hand, Anger, Envy, and Fear.” Emma Hamilton, most famous today as Lord Nelson’s mistress, posed for the figure of “Joy” (cradling the baby).

The painting’s sale made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to the Illustrated London News clipping seen below, the curatorial file includes clippings from the New York American, the New York Herald Tribune, the New York Times, the Times Weekly Edition, and the Washington Post. 

Photo of painting with caption "A Famous Romney going to America..."

Clipping from the Illustrated London News, 1 October 1927 (generally, Emma Hamilton is credited only with posing for “Joy,” not also “Love,” as stated here)

Like the Illustrated London News, many newspapers took care to point out that the anonymous New York purchaser planned to put the painting on display in a public institution. This softened the blow somewhat at a time when it seemed that wealthy Americans were set to purchase any piece of English heritage that could be moved, and many that seemingly couldn’t.

The large painting now hangs opposite the circulation desk in the New Reading Room. Known in-house as “The Baby Jesus Shakespeare,” there’s no denying that the picture’s aesthetics have not stood the test of time. Was the painting worth it? As a financial investment, the answer has to be “no.” It’s a safe bet that it would not fetch $675,000 (the original purchase price, adjusted for inflation) in today’s market. As a document of Shakespeare in Romantic art, though, it is hugely important to scholars. And, as a staff member has pointed out, it is surely the only full-frontal nude life-size portrait of Shakespeare.

  1. For purposes of comparison, paying $51,076 for a commodity in 1927 is roughly equivalent to paying $675,000 in 2013. For purposes of discussing whether or not art is a commodity, please step into the nearest coffeehouse and pick a fight. []

Author: Erin Blake

ERIN BLAKE is Interim Head of Collection Information Services and Cataloging at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and also the Folger's Curator of Art & Special Collections, a remit that covers prints, drawings, photographs, paintings, porcelain figurines, playbills, Shakespeare souvenirs, and anything else that isn't a printed book or manuscript. She teaches History of Printed Book Illustration in the West at Rare Book School, and is chief editor of Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Graphics).

2 Comments

  1. A collector I know bought a complete 100 print set of the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery. The one engraving he loved is, coincidentally, the subject of your blog: The infant Shakespeare attended by Nature and the Passions. London: J. & J. Boydell, 1799

    Not caring much for the entire collection, He cut out this one print then had it beautifully framed. It hangs in his study to this day. Not discussing the rights and wrongs of breaking up plate books, I think the power of this print certainly was in operation here.

  2. Not being terribly visual, I hadn’t paid much attention to this painting until Erin gave a wonderful talk at the Cosmos Club Shakespeare group, and included it in the slides she showed us. The implicit deification of Shakespeare is striking, especially in conjunction with the first Stratford Jubilee around the same time that it was painted.

    So I used this painting to illustrate my 2009 article on “The Psychology of Shakespearean Biography,” which contends that Shakespeare has become a sort of surrogate deity since the atheism of the late Enlightenment.

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