LONDON -- He's a man in black with a full beard and a hoop earring. Or a clean-shaven,
balding gent in a starched collar. Or a sensitive young man in a rich, red doublet.

For centuries, scholars have argued about the appearance of William Shakespeare. Britain's
National Portrait Gallery announced Wednesday that a canvas by an obscure 17th-century
artist is _ most likely _ the one true likeness of the playwright painted in his lifetime.

A portrait of William Shakespeare attributed to a little-known artist named John Taylor,
and dated by experts to between 1600 and 1610, the Chandos portrait provides an unusually
bohemian image of Shakespeare, dressed in black, sporting a gold hoop earring and with the
strings on his white collar rakishly untied, on display at the National Portrait Gallery
in London as part of an exhibition, Searching for Shakespeare, of portraits and
manuscripts from Shakespeare's lifetime, Wednesday, March 1, 2006. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

"I suspect this is the closest we're ever going to get to looking at the face of
Shakespeare," said Tarnya Cooper, curator of the gallery's 16th-century collection.

She said there was strong evidence but no conclusive proof that the so-called Chandos
portrait depicted Shakespeare.

The portrait _ the first painting presented to the gallery when it opened in 1856 _ forms
the center of the "Searching for Shakespeare" exhibition, which opens Thursday.

Cooper said it was fitting that the institution's first acquisition was "our national poet
_ at least we hope it is."

Attributed to a little-known artist named John Taylor and dated by experts to between 1600
and 1610, the Chandos portrait provides an unusually bohemian image of Shakespeare. The
Bard is shown dressed in black, sporting a gold hoop earring and with the strings on his
white collar rakishly untied.

Earrings were worn then by "people of wit and ingenuity and creative ambition," Cooper

Similarities in style to portraits of other Elizabethan writers strengthened the argument
that the painting is of Shakespeare, who died in 1616, she said.

There is no definitive portrait of Shakespeare painted in his lifetime. Only two
likenesses, both posthumous, are widely accepted as authentic: a bust on his tomb in
Stratford's Holy Trinity Church and an engraving used as a frontispiece to the Folio
edition of his plays in 1623.

The National Portrait Gallery has spent a year and a half conducting tests on several
alleged Shakespeare portraits, subjecting them to X-rays, ultraviolet examination,
microphotography and pigment analysis.

The gallery concluded that one of the best-known images, the so-called Flower portrait
owned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, was a fake, painted 200 years after the writer's
death. The work, which shows the playwright gazing out at an angle and wearing a wide
white collar, has been widely reproduced and is often printed on the covers of his plays.

Analysis uncovered chrome yellow paint from around 1814 embedded deeply in the work, and
revealed that it was painted atop a 16th-century Italian Madonna and child.

"Somebody had found a piece of wood of the right age to make a pretty convincing portrait
of Shakespeare," Cooper said. "It fooled historians for quite a long time."

Tests also ruled out the Grafton portrait, which shows a dark-haired, highbrowed young man
in a rich scarlet jacket. Although gallery experts dated the painting to 1588 _ when
Shakespeare was 24 _ they found no evidence that it depicted the playwright. Cooper said
it was unlikely that Shakespeare, then a young actor, could have afforded the luxurious
clothes worn by the sitter.

The exhibition brings together six of the best-known "Shakespeare" portraits with original
documents from the playwright's life, including the bond of his marriage to Anne Hathaway,
the deed to his house in Stratford and the will in which he left his wife his "second-best

It's unlikely to end the argument about Shakespeare's image. A book by German academic
Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, to be published in April, names another contender _ a bust
owned by London's Garrick Club _ as an authentic likeness.

Hammerschmidt-Hummel, an English professor at the University of Mainz, said that forensic
analysis has revealed that the death mask, the bust and the Chandos and Flower portraits
all "share 17 identical morphological features" and must be genuine. Hammerschmidt-Hummel
also noted that growths on the eyes of the portraits' subjects indicate Shakespeare died
of cancer.

Cooper said Hammerschmidt-Hummel's methodology was "fundamentally flawed."

"Portraiture is not forensic evidence," she said. "They are works of art."

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