A comparison of Shakespeare Portraits

A Shakespeare portrait owned by the Cobbe family for nearly 300 years was presented in March 2009 as the only known likeness to have been painted in Shakespeare's lifetime. Until now, scholars have deemed a woodcut by Martin Droeshout to have been the most authentic representation, but it was produced after Shakespeare had died. A curious thing is that most popular depictions of Shakespeare show him to be balding, whereas this Cobbe portrait depicts him with a full head of hair, despite being painted approximately 6 years before his death. Could he have gone bald that fast? Or were most later portraits based on the apprearance of the Droueshout etching? Take a look at the collection of portraits below and come to your own conclusions!


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Below left we have Shakespeare, The Cobbe Portrait, c. 1610, and below right we have Shakespeare, The Janssen Portrait, c. 1610, and altered c. 1770. The owner of the Cobbe portrait realized he might have a portrait of Shakespeare when he saw the Janssen Portrait in an exhibition on Shakespeare. They appear so similar - could one have been a copy of the other? The odd thing about this painting is that it was altered over 150 years later, to look more like the "accepted" view of Shakespeare, with a balding head. But when the painting was later restored, they realized it originally looked like what you see below.

The Cobbe Portrait of Shakespeare at left and the Janssen Portrait of Shakespeare at right

Let's take a look at 3 more portraits of Shakespeare and compare them to what we have above. Below left we have Shakespeare, The Droeshout Portrait, from 1623; below center is Shakespeare, The Chandos Portrait, also from 1623; and below right, Shakespeare, The Soest Portrait, from 1660. Compared to the two portraits above which show a full head of hair, all three of these portraits show Shakespeare to be balding.

compare portraits of Shakespeare: Droeshout, Chandos and Soest

Below we have three more portraits of Shakespeare to be considered: at left, Shakespeare, artist unknown, c. 1700. This painting was supposedly based on the Chandos portrait, above center. In the middle below we have Shakespeare, The Flower Portrait. This painting was done on top of a painting inscribed 1609, but was later determined to have been painted in the 1800's, and is now considered to be a forgery, based on the Droeshout engraving. Below right we have Shakespeare, The Sanders Portrait, c. 1603. This painting was labeled "Shakespeare" by either the artist, John Sanders, or by one of his kids, and it would have depicted Shakespeare at age 39. John Sanders was an actor in Shakespeare's acting company, so he would have known what Shakespeare looked like ... but some experts believe this was not truly a painting of Shakespeare, thinking that he looked too different from the appearance of Shakespeare in the Droeshout portrait, which is widely viewed as being an accurate depiction.

comparing 3 portraits of Shakespeare: Unknown artist, The Flower Portrait of Shakespeare, and the Sanders Portrait

Part of the mystery to all of these portraits is that there is no solid evidence that Shakespeare ever commissioned a portrait of himself, and even more mysteriously, there is no written description of his physical appearance. How can that be? After Shakespeare's death, as his reputation grew, artists started creating portraits and various narrative paintings depicting him. Most of these were believed to have been based on earlier images, but some of them were purely the imagination of the artist. So, in some ways, one has to wonder if anyone can definitively say what Shakespeare looked like.




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