Friday, February 11, 2011

The Bard Or Not the Bard? That Is The Question.

By Nancy Mattoon

Cobbe Portrait.
Claimed to be a portrait of
William Shakespeare
done while he was alive, ca 1610.
(Images Courtesy of Morgan Library and Museum.)

What some experts claim is the one and only portrait of Shakespeare painted during his lifetime is the centerpiece of a new exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum. The painting was unveiled in 2009 by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, and according to the Morgan, "Recent technical analysis—as well as the portrait's superior quality—has established it as the original of a long series of portraits traditionally identified as Shakespeare."

The Jacobean painting had hung unrecognized for centuries in an Irish country house belonging to the Cobbe family. Both this portrait and a recently identified portrait of Shakespeare's patron Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, were part of the estate of Archbishop Charles Cobbe (1686-1765). According to the exhibit, "The Cobbe portrait has significant resemblances in costume and design to Martin Droeshout's engraving of Shakespeare published in the First Folio (1623), and bears a Latin inscription, taken from a poem by Horace, addressed to a playwright."

Martin Droeshout's Engraving of Shakespeare, 1623.

All of which sounds pretty convincing, and it has convinced some very respected Shakespearean scholars that the Cobbe portrait is the real deal. (Chiefly the Chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stanley Wells, the Head of Education for the Trust, Paul Edmondson, and Mark Broch, the curator of the Cobbe Collection.) On the other hand, several scholars immediately took exception to the identification of the subject of the portrait as Shakespeare, most notably Katherine Duncan-Jones, professor of English at Oxford University, and Tarnya Cooper, the curator of 16th-century portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, London, who curated that institution's 2006 Searching for Shakespeare exhibition.

And even the Morgan curator, Declan Kiely, was guarded when asked about the Cobbe portrait: "The position the Morgan takes is that the Cobbe portrait is authentic—that is, it is a painting dating from 1610 and depicts a sitter who may be identified as Shakespeare." The Cobbe portrait is, in fact, a dead ringer for another "Shakespeare portrait" that has been branded a fake. Known as the "Janssen Portrait," this painting has been called "the earliest proven example of a genuine portrait altered to look like Shakespeare," by Erin Blake, Curator of Art and Special Collections at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

The altered balding hairline in the "original"
Janssen portrait,

as it appeared when purchased by the

Folger Shakespeare Library in the early 1930s.

Blake notes that the Folger "owns about forty painted portraits of Shakespeare (including miniatures), and none of them are authentic portraits from life. About half were never intended to be considered life-portraits, but are honest representations of the artist's conception of Shakespeare. These are sometimes known as 'memorial portraits' and were particularly popular in the Victorian period. The rest are fakes, being either pictures once asserted to be Shakespeare from life but actually painted in recent times, or genuine portraits from Shakespeare’s era that were later altered to look Shakespearean."

The Janssen portrait after 1988 restoration.

Fake Shakespeare portraits are a virtual cottage industry. According to the Wikipedia article on Portraits of Shakespeare, "Within four decades of its foundation in 1856, upwards of 60 portraits were offered for sale to the National Portrait Gallery purporting to be of Shakespeare, but there are only two definitively accepted as portraying him, both of which are posthumous. One is the engraving that appears on the cover of the First Folio (1623) and the other is the sculpture that adorns his memorial in Stratford upon Avon, which dates from before 1623."

The bottom line on Shakespeare portraits is that:

A. There is no physical description of Shakespeare in existence.

B. There is no evidence Shakespeare ever sat for a portrait.

Nevertheless, just as there are scholars who are convinced that somebody else wrote Shakespeare, there are scholars who are convinced that somebody sat Shakespeare down and painted his portrait. But they can't agree on exactly who it was, in either case.

The Changing Face of Shakespeare continues through May 1, 2011 at the Morgan Library and Museum.

1 comment:

  1. The only resemblance to the Droishout is the collar, which was pretty standard for the time. The bone structure, the nose, the jaw-line & particularly the cheekbones & the bagged eyes are not remotely similar. The face faces the same direction, but Droishout's engraved plate from which the picture is printed, would necessarily have been a mirror image, taken from a portrait facing right. The claims of the authticity of the Cobb portrait are becoming as bizarre as the theories of Shakespeare authorship. People liked to think that the plays & poems must have been written by a university man or an aristocrat rather than an experienced man of the theatre. Now there is the notion that this picture, one of several variants of a portrait which has been from time to time been labelled "Shakespeare", must relate to the Droishout or the Stratford monument bust, despite the very obvious differences.


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