Portrait of a Melancholic Gentleman
Portrait of a Melancholic Gentleman

ENGLISH SCHOOL (17th Century )

Portrait of a Melancholic Gentleman

c. 1600 England

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English School, (circa 1600)
Portrait of a Melancholic Gentleman
Oil on panel, oval
Image size: 29¼ x 23⅞ inches
Painted wooden frame
Collection of Francis Greville, 1st Earl of Warwick.
The Trustees of the Lord Brooks’ Settlement, (removed from Warwick Castle).
Sotheby’s, London, 22nd March 1968, lot 81.
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,
London, (2012).
- 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,
Height 29.25 inch (74.29 cm)
Width 23.75 inch (60.32 cm)
Oil on panel, oval
Darnley Fine Art

Darnley Fine Art

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