Isaac Shelby
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False portraits: In genealogy, don’t take portraits at face value.

I happened upon this article on the Library and Archives Canada Blog a while back and was surprised to learn just how prevalent false portraits really are.


Although I have been aware that some portraits were false or mythical, I did believe that the majority of them were identified as such. I was aware, however, that group paintings and portraits such as battle scenes, etc. were frequently false, created entirely with the artist’s imagination.

Governor Isaac Shelby: one of numerous false portraits?
False Portraits: In genealogy, don’t take portraits at face value.

Portrait of Isaac Shelby, Governor of Kentucky.As is evident on my Pinterest Board “Genealogy Research” and my numerous portraits saved and available for free download on my Blythe Genealogy database site, I am an avid portrait collector, almost to the point of obsession.

As a result of this article, I’ve decided I’m going to research portraits to see if I can determine if they are based on reality and will attempt to accurately label as many as possible.

One thing to note, though, is that with any person for whom numerous portraits are available by numerous artists, it is more likely they are based on reality.

However, even in this case, although much less likely to Shelby, Isaac Sketchbe false, there have been some whose variety of portraits were based on a previous false portrait and not on the real person – especially in cases where the first known portrait was created after death.

The portraits I have included are those I’ve collected of General Isaac Shelby, Governor of Kentucky. It is fairly sure his portraits are based on his actual appearance because there are subtle changes between portraits including age and/or physical countenance. In this case, the portraits in which he’s more aged show him to be more gaunt and carrying a cane.

These portraits are likely based on reality because:

  • They are either original or based on an original, authentic, documented or researched portrait.
  • The artist, date of the portrait and circumstances are clearly documented.
  • Shelby-Isaac-2-219x3001.jpgThe portrait was commissioned by a group, family or government as with the portrait above of Governor Isaac Shelby.
  • There are several portraits by several different artists showing a progression in age, physical condition, etc. through the years.
  • The portrait has been researched and documented by an archive, museum, researcher, etc.

Portraits may not be based on reality because:

  • There is no existing documentation regarding date and circumstances of the portrait.
  • Not known to have been commissioned by a group, family or government.
  • Only existing portraits are rough sketches in books, etc.
  • All existing portrait variations are almost exact, not showing age progression, physical condition, etc. through time.
  • Portrait is created after the death of the subject.

In the case of these portraits of Isaac Shelby, I can also be confident of their authenticity because of genetics – the likeness carried on through the family and the similarity between Isaac and my father-in-law.


A fifties' child, mom, wife, avid genealogy researcher, web contributor and author/owner of four blogs including Empty Nest Ancestry, Feathering the Empty Nest Nest, Top Web Blog Tips, Job Bully, and our extensive family genealogy database site at Blythe Genealogy.