The Folger owns about forty painted portraits of Shakespeare (including miniatures), and none of them are authentic portraits from life. About half were never intended to be considered life-portraits, but are honest representations of the artist's conception of Shakespeare. These are sometimes known as "memorial portraits" and were particularly popular in the Victorian period. The rest are fakes, being either pictures once asserted to be Shakespeare from life but actually painted in recent times, or genuine portraits from Shakespeare’s era that were later altered to look Shakespearean.
The most historically important altered painting, in my opinion, is the Janssen portrait. We know it is a genuine portrait from ca. 1610, and it was already doctored by 1770 when a print was published showing it in its "Shakespeare" state, with a high rounded hairline. This makes it is the earliest proven example of a genuine portrait altered to look like Shakespeare.
Tarnya Cooper, curator of the National Portrait Gallery’s 2006 exhibition, Searching for Shakespeare, included the Janssen, where it served as the only example of a genuine portrait from the era that was subsequently overpainted to look like Shakespeare. The Shakespearean overpaint was removed in the 1980s, revealing the original lower hairline.
The identity of the original sitter is not known for certain, but a portrait identical to the unaltered Janssen appeared at the sale of the Ellenborough collection in 1947. Although it is known only through a photograph from the time of the sale, art historian David Piper suggested in 1964 that the Ellenborough painting could be the portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury that had once been in that collection. Others are skeptical, and do not see the resemblance Piper saw with authenticated portraits of Overbury.
While the identity of the sitter in the Janssen portrait remains an open question, exhibiting the picture prominently in London in 2006 unexpectedly brought to light a previously-unknown identical portrait. A visitor to the exhibition, Alec Cobbe, recognized the Janssen portrait as a match for a painting that had been in his family for centuries, and had wrongly been identified as Sir Walter Raleigh in the eighteenth century. The Cobbe portrait, as it is now called, was publicly unveiled by Professor Stanley Wells and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust on March 9, 2009. Wells and others believe it is a lifetime portrait of Shakespeare after all. The question will, no doubt, continue to fascinate for many years to come.
Curator of Art and