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Morgan Library & Museum Presents The Changing Face of William Shakespeare

In 2009, when the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon unveiled a previously unidentified portrait with strong claims to be the only surviving contemporary likeness of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), it created an international stir. The Jacobean-era painting had hung unrecognized for centuries in an Irish country house belonging to the Cobbe family, and bore significant resemblance to the famous engraving of Shakespeare in the First Folio of his plays.

In a new exhibition, on view through hrough May 1, 2011, at The Morgan Library & Museum entitled The Changing Face of William Shakespeare, the Cobbe portrait, together with a recently identified sixteenth-century portrait of Shakespeare’s patron Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, is being presented in the U.S. for the first time. Also on view will be three additional portraits of the playwright, including one acquired by Pierpont Morgan in 1910, an original copy of the 1623 First Folio, and a copy of Shakespeare’s 1593 poem Venus and Adonis, dedicated to the earl. 

Together, the works offer insight into the questions surrounding authentic images of the great playwright, an issue of significant scholarly interest and debate. Both the quality of the Cobbe portrait, thought to have been painted around 1610, and recent technical analysis suggest it is the first in a series of portraits claimed to depict William Shakespeare. The Cobbe portrait bears a Latin inscription, taken from a poem by Horace, addressed to a playwright. Both the Shakespeare portrait and the painting of the earl were inherited by Archbishop Charles Cobbe (1686-1765). In the eighteenth century the Cobbe family was connected by marriage to Southampton’s descendants.

The best known image of Shakespeare is Martin Droeshout’s posthumous engraving in the First Folio, and the earlier Cobbe portrait has certain costume and design similarities to it, indicating that it may have served as a source for Droeshout. The portrait acquired by Pierpont Morgan, founder of The Morgan Library & Museum, is almost unknown, usually having hung in private offices inside the institution. Also on view, in addition to the portraits and books, is a 1596 royal gift roll that records Southhampton’s New Year’s gift to Queen Elizabeth I.

“The issue of determining authentic lifetime portraits of William Shakespeare is a fascinating one and the recent identification of the Cobbe portrait adds to the debate,” said William M. Griswold, director of The Morgan Library & Museum. “This exhibition provides context for a discussion that is certain to continue among scholars and those interested in the work of history’s greatest playwright.

This exhibition is supported by Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon B. Polsky. Optium Acrylic Glazing® is provided courtesy of M&M Distributors and Tru Vue.

Image: Artist unknown, The Cobbe Portrait of William Shakespeare, ca. 1610, oil on panel. Collection of Archbishop Charles Cobbe (1686–1765); Cobbe Collection, Hatchlands Park.

The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Avenue, at 36th Street, New York, NY 10016-3405

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