This atmospheric oil painting depicts John Donne (1572–1631) as a romantic young writer. It is one of the first known portraits of an Elizabethan author, and was made by an unknown artist around 1595. At this time Donne was probably living as a man-about-town at the Inns of Court in London and producing his elegies and urban satires, where male speakers talk cynically of adultery and ambition.
In his stance and costume, Donne consciously styles himself as a melancholy lover – a fashionable image for young men in Elizabethan England. The poet seems to be lost in thought, with his black cloak and floppy hat merging with the murky background. His face, open-necked lace collar and elegant hand shine out against the shadows.
The motto, written in Latin, reads Illumina Tenebr(as) Nostras domina which can be translated as ‘O Lady, lighten our darkness’. This text is adapted from the Latin Bible, Psalm 17. 29 – ‘Deus meus illumina tenebras meas’ or ‘O Lord lighten my darkness’. Here it seems to serve as a plea, not to God, but to a lover.
In his will, Donne left this portrait to his friend Robert Ker, the future Earl of Ancram, describing it as ‘the picture of myne which is taken in the shaddowes’.