Early Efforts to Market Shakespeare Were Hardly Classic (Exhibit/Wash.DC)

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The idea was born over dinner in 18th century London. John Boydell, a prominent and well-to-do publisher and politician, was convinced that England lacked a suitably accomplished and vigorous tradition of history painting -- the grand style of epic moments and great men, spread across huge canvases, that was generally regarded as the highest and most edifying form of painting at the time. So, after consulting with the eminent artists of his day, he decided to jump-start it -- by commissioning dozens of paintings of scenes by Shakespeare.

Boydell's gallery, a short-lived but remarkably influential private museum that opened in 1789, is the subject of the Folger Shakespeare Library's intriguing new exhibition: "Marketing Shakespeare: The Boydell Gallery (1789-1805) and Beyond." It includes paintings commissioned by Boydell, engravings made from them, and other artifacts that show the generally dizzy and appallingly sentimental craze for all things Shakespeare at the end of the 18th century.

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