+ A Portrait of Shakespeare?

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Shakespeare: a new and more handsome portait has surfaced nearly 400 years after his death, writes John F Burns in the NY Times.

Recently discovered, the portait has been judged to be the only known likeness to have been painted in his lifetime by a group of Shakespeare scholars and art historians.

Stanley Wells, who is the chairman of the Shakespeare Birthday Trust based in Stratford-upon-Avon, calls the new Shakespeare a “pinup.”  The poet appears more alluring in this depiction than he does in the familiar solemn-faced, balding versions.

Until now scholars have judged the most authentic representation of Shakespeare to be a black-and-white woodcut engraving that appeared in the first folio edition of Shakespeare’s works in 1623.  That woodcut was made by the Flemish artist Martin Droeshut.

The newly discovered portrait has been taken from the private collection of an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family, the Cobbes.  They have owned the picture for nearly 300 years, having inherited it through a family relationship with Shakespeare’s only known literary patron, Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton. 

The Earl of Southampton was a dashing aristocrat who was able to avoid a death sentence passed on him after he participated in a rebellion against Elizabeth I.

Not all Shakespeare scholars are convinced the Cobbe portrait is an authentic likeness — or even that it depicts Shakespeare at all.  The standard aristocratic dress of the man in the portrait, as well as the general idealization traditional in Elizabethan portraiture, often resulted in portraits that bore no resemblance at all to the person involved.

The Cobbe portrait shows a handsome man.  In middle age, this Shakespeare is fresh-faced, with a closely trimmed auburn beard, a long straight nose and a full, almost bouffant hairstyle. 

He is dressed in an elaborate white lace ruff and a gold-trimmed blue doublet of a kind worn only by the wealthy and successful men of his age. 

Mr Wells and other experts say that after three years of studying the portrait, and after elaborate scientific tests at Cambridge University, they are satisfied that this is the holy grail people have sought for centuries. 

This is, they feel, a portrait done in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and the original from which all other portraits of the period were copied.

They determined it was probably painted in 1610, when Shakespeare was 46, only a few years before his death in 1616.

An exhibition will open in Stratford in April 2009.  In a brochure, titled “Shakespeare Found,” the Birthday Trust rather lyrically writes

His face is open and alive, with a rosy, rather sweet expression, perhaps suggestive of modesty.  There is nothing superior or haughty in the subject, which one might well expect to find in a face set off by such rich clothing.  It is the face of a good listener, as well as of someone who exercised a natural restraint.

Reporters are given a handout, perhaps intended to create excitement, which suggests the portrait could open a new era in Shakespeare scholarship.   It might give fresh momentum to generations of speculation  whether the playwright, married and a father of three, was romantically connected to the Earl of Southampton.  Some of his best-loved poems and some of the sensual passages in his poems and plays — especially the sonnets — are centered on expressions of love and desire for men, not women. 

A Yale Shakespeare expert, David Scott Kastan, says there are reasons to question the Cobbe portrait’s provenance.  Was it in fact once owned by the Earl of Southampton?  Was it commissioned by him (as the Trust representatives believe)?  Is the richly dressed young man in the portrait really Shakespeare?

Says Kastan, “If I had to bet I would say it’s not Shakespeare.”  But even if it is, he continues, the traditions of Elizabethan portraiture mean that it would be unwise to conclude that Shakespeare actually looked like the man in the picture.

“It might be a portrait of Shakespeare, but not a likeness, because the conventions of portraiture at the time were often to idealize the subject.”

Four paintings have been the focus of scholars searching for a Shakespeare likeness.  All have strong similarities to the Cobbe portrait.  One of them, the so-called Folger portrait, is displayed in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC.

Experts in London said they were sure from their study of the Cobbe portrait that it is the original from which these others were copied.

The portrait came to light when Alec Cobbe, an art restorer and heir to the family fortune, visited the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2006 to see an exhibition titled “Searching for Shakespeare.” 

The Folger portrait was displayed.  Mr Cobbe concluded that the Folger portrait, whose authenticity has been doubted for decades, was a copy of the one that had been in his family’s art collection since the mid-18th century.  The family was unaware that it might be a picture of Shakespeare.

Mr Wells, the Shakespeare scholar, said that compared to the Cobbe portrait, the other portraits presented “an inanimate mask” of Shakespeare; he feels they are only “dull copies of the original.”

He adds, “No one who has seen the four paintings can doubt that the Cobbe portrait is the original.  You don’t need an expert to see that.”

Cambridge scientists were given the portrait to study.  They found that the oak panel on which the Cobbe portrait was mounted came from trees felled in the last 20 years of the sixteenth century.  This would point to a date for the painting in the early 1600s, say the British experts. 

In addition, the paint used was also characteristic of that period, as was the intricate and costly style of the lace ruff worn by the man in the picture.

An assistant curator for Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, Rupert Featherstone, says another clue pointing to the Cobbe’s claim to being the original from which Shakespeare paintings of the period were copied came from X-ray studies that showed the “pentiments,” or changes made by the painter as he painted. 

Among these pentiments is the inclusion of a small, fleshy bulge at the upper corner of Shakespeare’s left eye, a detail typical of minor adjustments made in original portraiture.

If the Cobbe painting is accepted as the only original lifetime likeness of the playwright, it could be worth millions, say Mr Wells and his colleagues.  But — they insist — pecuniary considerations played no part in their interest. 

“It hasn’t been for sale for 400 years, and it’s not for sale now,” says Mark Broch, curator of the Cobbe collection.

sole source: John F Burns’s article in the NY Times on 3/10.09.  www.nytimes.com

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