Is This William Shakespeare?

BY Arts Desk  March 11, 2009 at 12:30 PM EST

Earlier this week, lovers of the Bard got a special thrill: the unveiling of supposedly the only known portrait of William Shakespeare painted during his lifetime.

In 2006, art collector Alec Cobbe came upon a painting at London’s National Portrait Gallery that greatly resembled one his family had owned since the 18th century. Little had they known all those years, the anonymous man in their portrait is possibly the most famous writer in history.

Cobbe took the portrait to Stanley Wells, chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. “My first impression was skepticism; I am a scholar,” Wells told the Telegraph. “But my excitement has grown with the amount of evidence about the painting.” Wells believes there is a 90 percent chance that the man is Shakespeare.

Dating of the wood panel and an X-ray examination placed the origin around 1610, when Shakespeare was 46, six years before his death. Other experts at the Shakespeare Birth Trust have remarked on the liveliness of the subject, positing that it may be the only portrait of Shakespeare painted during his life.

Unless more evidence emerges, skeptics could view the sitter as just another high-muffed, well-groomed Elizabethan. Indeed, the portrait that began Cobbe’s inquiry, the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Janssen portrait, is not a confirmed likeness of Shakespeare. Painted in 1610, it was later altered to look more like Shakespeare. But Cobbe believes his portrait is the original on which Janssen’s was based.

“I think it looks the way many people want Shakespeare to look,” said James Loehlin, professor of English at the University of Texas and director of the Shakespeare at Winedale program. “It would be nice if it turns out to be true, but I think it will take a little longer for me to be convinced.”

Cobbe’s painting will go on display at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, on April 23, the Bard’s birthday, until Sept. 6.