The Globe and Mail reported today that the Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare has passed the most recent analysis in the battery of tests being undertaken to prove the unprovable–that it represents the only portrait of William Shakespeare painted while he was still alive. It set me off on a search of portraits of William Shakespeare. There are a number of portraits (and alleged portraits) of Shakespeare, but in spite of what many people want to believe, they don’t really look all that much alike. In fact, much of the time, the portraits appear to share more in common
with other portraits of various sitters at the time than they do with each other.
Looking across all these portraits for a resemblance is dizzying and pointless–if you squint right, they all seem to look like each other. And yet the urge to try is undeniable. I suppose you could argue that it doesn’t really matter what Shakespeare looked like, but there seems something deeply human in the desire to know the superficial specifics of the man whose intellectual achievements are so familiar to the entire Western world. More than anything, all this clamor over portraits of Shakespeare demonstrates one of the great boons that photography brought to the visual arts: in its liberation from individual artistic ability and traditional painterly conventions, photography demonstrated an astounding ability to provide us with a simple, invaluable likeness.