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John Donne

1 of 21 portraits of John Donne

John Donne, by Unknown English artist, circa 1595 - NPG 6790 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

John Donne

by Unknown English artist
oil on panel, circa 1595
30 3/8 in. x 24 5/8 in. (771 mm x 625 mm)
Purchased with help from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, The Art Fund, Lord Harris of Peckham, L.L. Brownrigg, the Portrait Fund, Sir Harry Djanogly, the Headley Trust, the Eva & Hans K. Rausing Trust, The Pidem Fund, Mr O. Damgaard-Nielsen, Sir David and Lady Scholey and numerous Gallery visitors and supporters, 2006
Primary Collection
NPG 6790


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  • John Donne (1572-1631), Poet and divine. Sitter associated with 21 portraits.

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This remarkable painting presenting Donne as a brooding poet is one of the earliest surviving examples of an Elizabethan author portrait. Donne is depicted with his head set back in the shadows, topped by a wide-brimmed hat, and his collar left untied at the neck - a fashionable literary affectation of melancholy. The Latin inscriptions translates as 'O Lady, lighten our darkness', and is a deliberate misquotation of Psalm 17, suggesting that the cause of Donne’s misery is a woman, and that the picture may have been intended as a plea to a lover. The portrait was described in his will as that 'picture of myne w[hi]ch is taken in the shaddowes', and bequeathed to his friend Robert Ker,1st Earl of Ancram.

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