1 of 21 portraits of 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
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This portraitback to top
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.
Linked publicationsback to top
- Charles Nicholl, Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, 2015, p. 84
- Cooper, Tarnya; Fraser, Antonia (foreword), A Guide to Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 2012, p. 25
- Ribeiro, Aileen; Blackman, Cally, A Portrait of Fashion: Six Centuries of Dress at the National Portrait Gallery, 2015, p. 66
- Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 58
Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top
Events of 1595back to top
Current affairsThe Nine Years War begins in Ireland. The Earl of Tyrone leads an uprising against the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. He appeals to the Catholic Philip II of Spain for assistance. Spanish ships land in Cornwall sparking fears of a new Armada. They burn Penzance and Mousehole but then flee. The Jesuit poet and Catholic martyr Robert Southwell is executed for treason. His Saint Peter's Complaint and Other Poems is posthumously published.
Art and scienceSir Walter Ralegh sets out on a voyage to Guiana (now Venezuela) to find the mythic land of 'El Dorado' where there was said to be large amounts of gold. His search is unsuccessful. Sir Francis Drake sails for the West Indies.William Shakespeare writes Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream at about his time. Portrait of the poet and clergyman John Donne is painted at about this time.
InternationalBattle of Fontaine-Française- Henry IV of France defeats the Spanish army and the remnants of the French Catholic League under Charles, Duke of Mayenne. Sigmund Báthory, Prince of Transylvania and Michael the Brave, Prince of Wallachia defeat the Ottoman army at the Guirgevo (in present-day Romania).Mehmed III succeeds Murad III as Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.
See this portrait
On display in Room 4 at the National Portrait Gallery