Painting of a Younger Shakespeare Discovered

Posted on March 9, 2009

Image of William Shakespeare


A painting has been discovered that is thought to be the only contemporary portrait painted of William Shakespeare. CNN notes that the portrait was painted 400 years ago. It was kept anonymously in an Irish home. CNN reports that the painting shows Shakespeare as a member of the upper class and not a struggling playwright.
The image reveals a wealthy Shakespeare of high social status, contradicting the popular view of a struggling playwright of humble status, according to Stanley Wells, a professor who chairs London's Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Wells, a distinguished Shakespeare scholar, arranged for three years of research and scientific testing which confirmed it was painted around 1610, when Shakespeare would have been 46 years old. "A rather young looking 46, it has to be said," Wells said. Shakespeare died in 1616.

The Cobbe portrait -- named after the Irish family that owns the painting -- shows Shakespeare with rosy cheeks, a full head of hair, and a reddish brown beard. The most common portrait of Shakespeare is a gray image showing a bald Bard with a small mustache and beard, and bags under his eyes.

The identity of the man in the portrait was lost over the centuries -- until Alec Cobbe saw a portrait from Washington's Folger Shakespeare Library. That painting, which fell into disfavor as a Shakespeare portrait about 70 years ago, turned out to be one of four copies of Cobbe's portrait.
Stanley Wells, chair of London's Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, tells CNN that the painting shows a man "wearing expensive costuming, including a very beautifully painted ruff of Italian lacework which would have been very expensive." He says it indicates that Shakespeare was "in his later years was a rather wealthy, a rather well affluent member of aristocratic circles in the society of his time." It is still possible that he struggled somehwat when he was much younger.

What an astonishing and marvelous find. The painting will be on view to the public at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon starting on April 23rd. The painting will be on display for several months before it is returned to the Cobbe family. The Cobbe family inherited the painting from an ancestor who was married to the Earl of Southampton. The Earl was a great friend of Shakespeare's and was probably was the one who commissioned the portrait.