Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Shakespeare Portrayed

Early portraits of Shakespeare preserve his appearance for posterity, while copies and variations indicate how perceptions of the poet-playwright shifted across later generations. A great number of prints were issued in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in response to the burgeoning cult of the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon. Faced with this proliferation, it can be surprising to learn that most images rely on a few early sources, and that only three of the latter—one print, one sculpture, and one painting—are today regarded as genuinely historical. In the following, we consider those originals, discuss portrayals once considered to be lifetime representations, and describe later imaginative works devised by painters and sculptors.

The title page of the First Folio (1623), the first published edition of Shakespeare’s plays, features an engraved portrait by Martin Droeshout. The editors, John Heminges and Henry Condell, both actors in the King’s Men, had known the subject and must have approved this likeness, which is thought to derive from a lost painting. Reissued in editions of 1632 and 1663, the print was reengraved as a frontispiece for the fourth edition of 1685. Charles Picart made a small copy (17.3.756-2421) for Abraham Wivell’s Inquiry into the History . . . of the Shakespeare Portraits in 1827, and reproductive engravings at scale appeared into the late nineteenth century (17.3.756-1108). Droeshout’s image is certainly iconic but strikes many viewers as emotionally remote and visually disjointed, since the head is rendered as convincingly three-dimensional, but the doublet is treated as a series of flattened patterns.

A second early portrait is the half-length memorial sculpture installed by Shakespeare’s executor or family at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon by 1623. Even less personality is conveyed by this stiff, though undeniably significant, historical image. Interestingly, the Victorian engraver Charles William Sherborn derived a lively print from this source in 1876 (17.3.756-1655). In that variation, the subject’s eyes sparkle, a slightly rotated head and torso suggest movement, and a skull and rose have been added to evoke mortality and love, Hamlet and the Tudors.

The Chandos Portrait (National Portrait Gallery, London) was named for a prominent eighteenth-century owner and is the only known Shakespeare portrait made from life. Attributed to the artist-actor John Taylor, the work depicts the subject around the age of forty, wearing a soft white collar, gold earring, and engaged expression. An 1849 mezzotint by Samuel Cousins reproduces the painting (1986.1180.1631), and two eighteenth-century engravings embellish the original: George Vertue framed the image in a simulated stone oval on a plinth for a set of Poets (1719) (17.3.756-1044); and Jacob Houbraken added a trophy of symbols for The Heads of Illustrious Persons of Great Britain (1747) (17.3.756-2423).

The dearth of early portrayals encouraged a determined search for more during the Shakespeare Revival, with the “Janssen Portrait” greeted as a promising discovery. This elegant, gentlemanly image was owned by Charles Jennens in the late 1760s and engraved by Richard Earlom for a 1770 edition of King Lear (17.3.756-1714). Attributed to Cornelius Janssen, the painting was later acquired by Henry Clay Folger Jr. and entered the Folger Library as a lifetime representation. It remained as such until 1988, when conservation revealed that the hairline had been overpainted and the inscription—“Æte 46 [age 46] / 1610”—added to strengthen the Shakespeare connection. Today, the alterations have been removed and both artist and subject are regarded as unknown.

Another possible lifetime likeness, painted on a cropped panel, was bought at a London auction in 1792 by Mr. S. Felton of Drayton, Shropshire. The work passed through several owners, then was engraved for Wivell’s Inquiry (17.3.756-2420), whose text argues for authenticity and identifies the maker as the actor Richard Burbage, Shakespeare’s friend and business associate, on the basis of initials inscribed on the verso. John Nichols, a respected editor and publisher, declared that the “Felton portrait” must have been Droeshout’s source for the First Folio engraving, and the work was acquired by Folger as a genuine 1597 portrayal. Now it is considered to postdate Shakespeare’s death.

Public enthusiasm, and gullibility, peaked in the 1790s around a forgery scheme perpetrated by William Henry Ireland, who concocted a trove of documents and plays and presented them as discoveries to his Bard-obsessed father, the publisher Samuel Ireland. One was a purported Shakespeare self-portrait sketch, etched and circulated by Samuel in 1795 (17.3.756-2479). When the scholar Edmond Malone finally gained access to the originals, he debunked them in a lengthy critique and characterized the portrait, with heavy irony, as “a miserable drawing of our poet done by himself [Shakespeare], from Martin Droeshout’s print . . . engraved seven years after his [own] death” (!).

Completely different in character are imaginative portrayals made by skilled artists and sculptors who worked from the late seventeenth century onward. In the 1660s, Gerard van Soest painted a sensitive half-length, perhaps modeled on a contemporary actor who resembled the playwright. Now at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, this slimmer, younger, and less rakish variation of the Chandos Portrait appealed to contemporaries who admired Sir Anthony van Dyck and John Dryden, and was reproduced in stipple by William Holl (17.3.756-2419).

In 1741, William Kent gave the Bard a significant makeover in a marble memorial he designed for Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, executed by the sculptor Peter Scheemakers. Following Soest’s lead, the subject wears seventeenth-century “Van Dyck” costume rather than late Elizabethan garb. In 1757, David Garrick commissioned a dynamic variation from Louis François Roubiliac for his Shakespeare Temple at Hampton, and bequeathed the full-length statue to the British Museum in 1779. When Adrien Carpantiers painted Roubiliac at work on the related clay model (17.3.756-2468), he paralleled the creativity of sculptor and subject. All of these portrayals used an enhanced hairline and a trim “Janssen” beard to idealize Shakespeare’s features, an influential conception repeated in busts for university libraries at Dublin and Cambridge, imitated by John Cheere, and distributed to a mass audience in the nineteenth century via small porcelain replicas (47.90.154).

John Quincy Adams Ward’s magisterial bronze at the south end of the Mall in New York’s Central Park offers a fitting coda. Commissioned to mark the tricentenary of Shakespeare’s birth in 1864, the statue was erected after the Civil War, in 1872, and recast as a statuette at the turn of the early twentieth century (17.90.2). Hewing to historicist standards and romantic sensibilities, Ward revived accurate Jacobean costume and based the features on the Stratford memorial, but infused the face with feeling and created a pose that invites us to join the playwright’s meditations.