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Benjamin ('Ben') Jonson

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Benjamin ('Ben') Jonson

by Abraham van Blyenberch
oil on canvas, circa 1617
18 1/2 in. x 16 1/2 in. (470 mm x 419 mm)
Purchased, 1935
Primary Collection
NPG 2752

On display in Room 4 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

This portraitback to top

Jonson was one of a small group of courtiers painted by the Flemish artist van Blyenberch, during his visit to England between 1617 and 1621. All other surviving portraits of Jonson derive from this one.

Related worksback to top

  • NPG 363: Benjamin ('Ben') Jonson (probably after)

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Portraits, p. 29
  • Audio Guide
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • 100 Writers, p. 26
  • Bolland, Charlotte, Tudor & Jacobean Portraits, 2018, p. 120 Read entry

    One of the most successful playwrights and poets of his time, Ben Jonson was born after the death of his father, a clergyman who was originally from Scotland. Jonson was brought up near Charing Cross, studying at Westminster School, and trained as a bricklayer, following his stepfather. He served in the Netherlands and also worked as a strolling actor, spending two periods in prison: for writing a seditious play in 1597 and for killing the actor Gabriel Spenser in a sword fight in 1598. His career spanned the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, and he is particularly known for Every Man in his Humour (1598), Volpone (1605) and The Alchemist (1610). He wrote a series of spectacular court masques in the early seventeenth century, collaborating with the architect and designer Inigo Jones. This portrait was painted during van Blyenberch's visit to England between 1617 and 1621. It may have been commissioned by the court favourite George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, to hang in his private collection; it was listed in an inventory of his son's collection in 1635. The portrait contains no inscriptions, attributes or emblems and no signs of the sitter's status; this focuses the viewer's attention on Jonson's face and gives the portrait a powerful sense of self-awareness. Blyenberch's painterly technique is without parallel in the work of contemporary English artists.

  • Charles Nicholl, Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, 2015, p. 52
  • Cooper, John, A Guide to the National Portrait Gallery, 2009, p. 18 Read entry

    Author of plays such as The Alchemist and Volpone, Jonson also wrote court masques for James I, collaborating with architect and designer Inigo Jones.

  • Cooper, Tarnya, Searching for Shakespeare, 2006 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 2 March - 29 May 2006), p. 180
  • Cooper, Tarnya, Searching for Shakespeare (hardback), 2006 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 2 March - 29 May 2006), p. 180
  • Cooper, Tarnya, Elizabeth I & Her People, 2013 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 10 October 2013 - 5 January 2014), p. 212
  • MacLeod, Catharine (preface, appreciation) Wilks, Timothy (introduction) Smuts, Malcolm (appreciation) MacGibbon, Rab (appendix), The Lost Prince: The Life and Death of Henry Stuart, 2012 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 18 October 2012 to 13 January 2013), p. 22
  • Motion, Andrew (edited), Interrupted Lives: In Literature, 2004, p. 13
  • Nicholl, Charles, Character Sketches: Elizabethan Writers, 1997, p. 21
  • Nicholl, Charles, Insights: Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, 2005, p. 42
  • Piper, David, The English Face, 1992, p. 68
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 343
  • Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 1969, p. 183
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 76 Read entry

    One of the most successful playwrights and poets of the seventeenth century, Ben Jonson was probably more famous and celebrated during his lifetime than his contemporary William Shakespeare. He wrote a wide range of poetry and prose but is particularly known for his comedies, including Every Man in his Humour (1598), Volpone (1605) and The Alchemist (1610). He lived a turbulent life, and was imprisoned several times for crimes including manslaughter, but found success in court circles as well as the public theatres. He was granted a pension by James I in 1616, and he wrote a series of court masques – elaborate allegorical entertainments involving dance, music, poetry and spectacular stage sets – under the patronage of Anne of Denmark.

    Jonson was one of a small group of people painted by the Flemish artist Abraham van Blyenberch (1575/6– 1624) during his visit to England between 1617 and 1621. Van Blyenberch’s vigorous brushstrokes seem to capture something of Jonson’s colourful character. All other known portraits of the playwright appear to derive from this one.

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1617back to top

Current affairs

Robert Carey, Earl of Monmouth is made Chamberlain to Prince Charles.
Petitions from Catholics persuade James I to permit certain types of recreation on Sundays. However, the king's subsequent declaration of sports angers Puritans who advocated for appropriate and strict observance of the sabbath.

Art and science

Physician and Rosicrucian, Robert Fludd, begins to publish his philosophical work, Utriusque cosmi. Extensively illustrated with mystic emblems, Fludd's neoplatonist metaphysics suggested a complex relationship between the spiritual and physical world, prompting attacks from leading scholars.


International

Incited by Charles d'Albert, Duke of Luynes, Constable of France, the seventeen-year-old French king, Louis XIII, forces his mother Marie de Medici who has held de facto power, into retirement and has her favourite, Concino Concini, assassinated.

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