Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) 1730c.

 English School 

Portrait of William Shakespeare (1564-1616),  English School
Oil on canvas
18th Century
30 x 25 inches 76 x 63.5 cm
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The proliferation of images of Shakespeare and his popularity at the expense of contemporary authors is not merely a consequence of his renaissance under Garrick at the Stratford Festival of 1769. Nor before he was propelled into the public consciousness by the most ingenious actor-manager in the history of the theatre was his name as little known as many modern accounts suggest.

Portraits of Shakespeare appear in two acknowledged forms - acknowledged, that is by contemporaries and his family - shortly after his death in the form of the tomb effigy at Stratford by Gerard Johnson and the engraving by Martin Droeshout in 1632. To these was added the Chandos portrait (National Portrait Gallery) believed to have been executed c.1610 by the playwright''s friend, poet and painter John Taylor. This last, which is first mentioned as a portrait of Shakespeare in the second half of the seventeenth century inspired a number of derivative portraits, including one by Gerard Soest (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust) and one attributed to Sir Godfrey Kneller (Knowle, National Trust). These all follow broadly the costume and pose of the original portrait, with subtle differences of interpretation suitable to their age.

Successive ages have been troubled by the apparent vacuity of the 1632 engraving, and the failure of the oil portrait to suggest the appearance of genius that even before the romantics was beginning to be accepted as a prerequisite of poetic brilliance. Like Milton, therefore, eighteenth century visions of Shakespeare begin to depict a subject increasingly ill at ease, with a countenance that implies inspiration on the point of expression.

Stylistically the present portrait suggests the work of John Vanderbank. He is known as an illustrator of literary subjects -a series of illustrations for a Spanish edition of Don Quixote (1731-1736) are his most celebrated exercise in this field- and a portrait of Shakespeare would be an entirely suitable commission for him or for circle.

The technique of John Vanderbank is distinct among portraitists of the early eighteenth century. He trained under Sir Godfrey Kneller in 1711 and follows in the traditions of grand portraiture that had become part of Van Dyck's legacy to British painting. His work, however, is characterised by a more vital and nervous drawing than that of his contemporaries, and by a bold pigmentation, particularly in the flesh, where hot pink and cool grey-green are juxtaposed to suggest glowing skin -the technique of colori cangianti, derived via Rubens from the artists of the secento.
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