Shop  |  Calendar  |  Join  |  Buy Tickets  |  Hamnet  |  Site Rental  |  Press Room  
About UsWhat's OnUse the CollectionDiscover ShakespeareTeach & LearnFolger InstituteSupport Us
The Collection

   Sign up for E-news!
   Printer Friendly

Janssen Portrait

The Janssen portrait. Oil on panel, early 1610s, altered before 1770, returned to original appearance 1988

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.


Erin Blake
Curator of Art and
Special Collections

  Did you know?

Shakespeare Memorial Bust

Martin Droeshout. Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare. Print, 1623 (Detail)

A replica of the memorial bust from Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon overlooks the Folger reading room. It is one of two accepted authentic likenesses of Shakespeare; the other is the Droeshout engraving from the First Folio title page.

Learn More

Time Magazine: Cobbe Portrait


Portrait to be exhibited at Birthplace Trust

Bookmark and Share   
     Copyright & Policies   |   Sitemap   |   Contact Us   |   About This Site
201 East Capitol Street, SE
Washington, DC 20003
Get directions »

Federal Tax ID #04-2103542
PublicReading Room
10am to 5pm, Monday through Saturday8:45am to 4:45pm, Monday through Friday
12pm to 5pm, Sunday9am to noon and 1pm to 4:30pm, Saturday
Main: 202 544 4600
Box Office: 202 544 7077
Fax: 202 544 4623