Room 6: Science and the Arts in the 17th Century

See the portraits currently on display in Room 6 here

Room 6

© The National Portrait Gallery, London

Although the seventeenth century was a period of huge civil and political disruption, it was also a time of great achievements in science and the arts. The portraits in this room include those of writers, scientists, painters and patrons from throughout the century. Distinctions between fields were not drawn in the same way at this period as they are today, and many of the sitters in these portraits were involved in both artistic and scientific activities. A general spirit of enquiry stimulated important and clearly scientific discoveries such as those made by William Harvey and Robert Boyle, as well as the varied achievements of antiquarians, collectors, philosophers and natural historians. In 1660 the Royal Society of London was founded to support and promote this kind of broadly scientific investigation.

Both literature and painting also flourished. The patronage of art during the century was dominated by the activities of Charles I and a number of important courtiers such as the Earl of Arundel, who brought leading continental artists, including Van Dyck and Rubens, to Britain. The works they produced, and the collections of old master paintings amassed during this time had a lasting impact on painting both in the court and beyond, throughout the rest of the century. Literature took many forms, from the elegant lyrical verse and knotty metaphysical poetry of the first half of the century, to Milton's great epic Paradise Lost, the satires of the Restoration period and the religious allegory of John Bunyan.