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Even though we all think we know what Shakespeare looks like from our middle school Hamlet textbooks, only one portrait was (probably) painted in the writer’s lifetime. In this singular work now on view at New York City’s Morgan Library, Shakespeare is a total 17th century hottie with glowing skin, a stylish goatee and overwhelmingly large collar. Sexy. Unveiled in 2009, the quality and age of the portrait means it is now believed to be the original in a long line of Shakespeare portraits, the ancestors of our textbook copies.
The painting’s provenance has lead to its designation as “the Cobbe portrait”. It was inherited by Archbishop Charles Cobbe (1686-1765) and “had hung unrecognized for centuries in an Irish country house belonging to the Cobbe family” before being discovered, according to the Morgan Library’s website. Comparisons to Martin Droeshout’s early engraving of Shakespeare printed in the First Folio, the earliest collection of Shakespeare’s work published in 1623, have reinforced the painting’s claim to fame as the only contemporaneous painted portrait of the author.
Droeshout’s engraving is pretty familiar, but it totally lacks the punch of the painting. A much more delicate portrait, the painting shows off a virtuoso sense of light and volume and a lively portrayal of its subject’s intelligence. But there remains debate about whether or not the Cobbe portrait is actually of Shakespeare– some claim that it actually depicts the more noble, and obviously more handsome, Sir Thomas Overbury, an argument supported by the Cobbe portrait’s resemblance to a known portrait of Overbury.
The exhibition at the Morgan, called The Changing Face of William Shakespeare, marshals these different possible portrayals of the author and also includes several other portrait versions on view. Historical objects in the exhibition include a 1623 First Folio edition belonging to the Morgan Library, as well as a copy of Venus and Adonis, a narrative poem written by Shakespeare in 1593 and dedicated to his patron the 3rd Earl of Southampton. Maybe these texts, and Shakespeare’s body of work, are his only true portraits.