This intriguing and mysterious example of Elizabethan portraiture dates from around 1600 and presents a deeply romantic image of a wealthy young gentleman. The sitter has been depicted in expensive clothing, which reflects his wealth and indicates that he is of a noble status. His linen shirt is edged with a delicate border of lace and his black cloak is lined on the inside with sumptuous scarlet and richly decorated on the outside with gold braid and a pattern of embroidered black spots.
Despite the richness of his clothes, the sitter has been presented in a dishevelled state of semi-undress, his shirt unlaced far down his chest with the ties lying limply over his hand, indicating that he is in a state of distracted detachment. It has been suggested that the fashion for melancholy was rooted in an increase in self-consciousness and introspective reflection during the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
In contemporary literature melancholy was said to be caused by a plenitude of the melancholy humor, one of the four vital humors, which were thought to regulate the functions of the body. An abundance of the melancholia humor was associated with a heightened creativity and intellectual ability and hence melancholy was linked to the notion of genius, as reflected in the work of the Oxford scholar Robert
Burton, who in his work ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’, described the Malcontent as ‘of all others [the]… most witty, [who] causeth many times divine ravishment, and a kind of enthusiamus… which stirreth them up to be excellent Philosophers, Poets and Prophets.’ (R. Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, London, 1621 in R. Strong, ‘Elizabethan Malady: Melancholy in Elizabethan and Jacobean Portraits’, Apollo, LXXIX, 1964). Melancholy was viewed as a highly fashionable affliction under Elizabeth I, and her successor James I, and a dejected demeanour was adopted by wealthy young men, often presenting themselves as scholars or despondent lovers, as reflected in the portraiture and literature from this period. Although the sitter in this portrait is, as yet, unidentified, it seems probable that he was a nobleman with literary or artistic ambitions, following in the same vain as such famous figures as the aristocratic poet and dramatist, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604).
The work can also be compared with the portrait of the poet John Donne (c.1595), a rare example of a portrait of a known literary figure from the period, which currently hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. As discussed by Tarnya Cooper, this portrait and Donne’s are of a very similar format, both depicting their young sitters in a similar state of melancholic distraction, with their black cloaks wrapped around their shoulders. The similarities between this portrait and that of Donne perhaps indicate the existence of a small sub-genre of portraits depicting aspiring literary figures (see Cooper’s discussion of the work in Cooper, T. Citizen Portrait: Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite of Tudor and Jacobean England and Wales, London, (2012), p.190). Both paintings contain an unusual wispy vertical white/grey brushstroke, emanating from the sitters’ chests. Elizabethan portraits often contain secret signs and symbols, which told stories about their sitters, and it has been suggested that this mark could represent the vapour of melancholy (see Cooper’s discussion of this feature of Donne’s portrait in Cooper, T. and Eade, J. Elizabeth I & Her People, London, (2014), p.181).
We are grateful to Adam Busiakiewicz for his assistance researching this work.
– Cooper, T. Citizen Portrait: Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite of Tudor and Jacobean England and Wales,
– Cooper, T. and Eade, J. (ed.) Elizabeth I & Her People, London, (2014).
– Reynolds, A. In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion, London, (2013).
– Strong, R. ‘Elizabethan Malady: Melancholy in Elizabethan and Jacobean Portraits’, Apollo, LXXIX,