There have traditionally been only two images accepted as true portraits of the man who is generally acknowledged as the greatest writer in the English language, William Shakespeare.
One is his monument bust in the Holy Trinity Church in Statford-upon-Avon (left, 4th down), and the other is the famous engraving by Martin Droeshout (left, bottom) that was used as the cover piece of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s work (and has been repurposed in a gigazillion ways since). Both of them were done after his death in 1616.
On Monday, the chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stanley Wells, unveiled a painting that has been in the house of the Cobbe family outside of Dublin for centuries, that is now suggested to be the only image of the bard painted from life (image at left, top).
This status was previously held, but always in question, for the painting called the Chandos Portrait, attributed to artist John Taylor (left, third down), but that claim has been discredited to a large extent.
The painting from the Cobbe family shows an energetic and bright eyed man, younger than the portrayals we commonly see, most of which have been based on Droeshout’s engraving.
In this portrait, Shakespeare would have been 46 at the time, six years before his death.
The painting bears a resemblance to a painting once thought to be of Shakespeare and attributed to Flemish painter Charles Janssen, that is in the National Gallery in London (left, second down).
Though this painting has been established to have been of another person, and to have been altered sometime before 1770 to make it resemble Shakespeare, it is what prompted the Alec Cobbe to begin inquires among Shakespeare scholars and art experts to see if his family’s painting was, indeed, of the great playwright.
Though the jury is not in, sophisticated dating techniques and the opinions of the experts in both camps suggest that this may, in fact, be the only portrait we have of Shakespeare painted during his lifetime.
Unfortunately, in all of the media attention the painting has received, I can find no mention of an attribution, or even a suggestion of a probable artist’s name. I suppose that may remain a mystery, like much about the bard himself.
Though out of context (and though by “paintings”, Hamlet is referring to Opheila’s makeup), the issue of identifying portraits brings to mind:
“I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God has given you one face and you make yourselves another,…”
[Thanks to Larry Roibal]