Found: First Non-dull Portrait of Shakespeare


This week, scholars unveiled what they believe to be the only authentic portrait of Shakespeare done in his lifetime, called the Cobbe portrait, according to our friends over at Discovery News. So wait, if this is true, what are all those pictures that adorn the book covers of his plays? It took a little digging to unravel the story of Shakespeare's likeness throughout the centuries.

The portraits of Shakespeare we're familiar with aren't exactly fakes, but they were made after the playwright died in 1616. The most famous of these is the engraving that appears on the First Folio of his plays, which dates back to 1623. There's also a bust that sits in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford made sometime between his death and 1623. The scholar touting the authenticity of the Cobbe painting called them both "dull" compared to this new find, according the the New York Times.

The engraving depicts a younger Shakespeare. Scholars believe that the engraver must have been basing it on a portrait that was made during Shakespeare's life. Now, they believe that original missing work to be the Cobbe portrait. In 1770, someone may have used the Cobbe portrait to alter a circa-1610 painting, known as the Janssen Portrait, to try to pass it off as Shakespeare, and this leads us to how the truth came out.

Today, although acknowledged as a fake, the Janssen Portrait usually hangs in the Folger Library in Washington, D.C. By chance, it was on loan in a museum in Britain when art restorer Alec Cobbe noticed that it looked a lot like a painting he had in his collection. The portrait, mistakenly identified as Sir Walter Raleigh, turned out to be what is probably the most authentic portrait of Shakespeare in existence.

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