by Anna Bratulic
Is the man in the portrait with the crafty look on his face William Shakespeare?
While he will not say that it is, Professor Robert Tittler thinks there
is a distinct possibility that the subject of the controversial painting
which surfaced last summer at the Art Gallery of Ontario might very well
be the Bard.
Tittler is among seven scholars who contributed to Is This The Face
Of Genius?, a book of essays which will be published by Knopf Canada
in June commenting on the authenticity of claims that the painting is
Painting is striking and revealing
The anonymous portrait, which is painted on wood and dated 1603, is of
a man who looks to be in his late thirties with a receding hairline and
a youthful flip of bangs. He is dressed in an expensive-looking doublet
that looks to have gold and silver threads running through it. The background
is blank and there are no other clues (such as jewellery or facial marks,
for example) that would help in the identification.
If this really turns out to be a portrait of Shakespeare, it tells
us something for sure about something we do not know: what he looked like,
said Tittler, who does research on non-courtly English portraiture of
What strikes us most about it is the face itself, the emotional
content, the character in it. Hes half smiling. Hes looking
at you, but not looking at you. He has a very alluring, sly, perhaps mischievous
kind of appearance. The actors virtue is in his face.
The Globe and Mail broke the story last May. The painting belongs
to a family living in Ontario who claim that the portrait was painted
by an ancestor, John Sanders, who was a fellow actor and friend of Shakespeare.
The painting has been handed down through the generations within the Sanders
family. There is an inscription written in ink on cloth on the back, attesting
that the portrait is a likeness of William Shakespeare.
While chemical testing of the paint done by the Canadian Conservation
Institute, tree-ring analysis of the wood panel, and costume assessment
validate the fact that the painting was done around 1600, scholars remain
sceptical of the familys claims as to who did it.
No one has been able to track down who John Sanders is, Tittler
said. Theres very little record of that. Shakespeare is one
of the most famous and most written-about people in English history, but
one of the striking things is how little we actually know of him, despite
ardent searching by generations of scholars.
However, it does seem strange, Tittler added, that there was a painter
called John Sanders who knew Shakespeare well and performed with him
and painted this painting solely for his own admiration. The sense
of character that he has captured, and the very delicate brushwork in
the collar and on parts of the face, suggest that this is a person who
is highly skilled at painting, and not an amateur who does it on Sunday
afternoons when its rainy outside.
Tittler emphasized that the crucial point abou this portrait is
that there are no known portraits done of Shakespeare during his lifetime.
This would be the only one, if it is authentic.
Shakespeare died in 1616, and only two portraits of him have been generally
accepted authentic, and both were likely painted after his death, although
this is a matter of dispute. One is a 1623 engraving by Dutch artist Martin
Droeshout that appeared in the posthumously published first folio edition
of Shakespeares plays.
The other is the Chandos painting, named after the Dukes of Chandos, who
were its previous owners. It hangs in Britains National Portrait
Gallery, which claims that it dates from around 1610; however, its origins
Both works depict the playwright as heavyset, jowly and rather bland-looking.
However, Tittler said that the nature and function of portraiture at that
time may in fact bolster the claims of the Sanders supporters.
Portraits of that time were not necessarily meant to be perfect
likenesses of what the person looked like, he explained. They
were often meant to be like icons, aimed at representing a certain type
of person, so that a portrait of the mayor, for example, is a portrait
of the mayor because hes wearing a red robe and holding some prop
or symbol of his office.
It would not be unusual, then, for Shakespeare, who was primarily known
as an actor during his lifetime, to have himself depicted in a way that
would display his ability to express personality and emotion.
The real prop in this painting isnt a prop at all, Tittler
said. Its the face. I think this is an actors face.
I think in painting this, thats what the painter was trying to tell
us. This is not the face of anybody else but an actor. Who else would
want to look like that?