© National Portrait Gallery, London
The intricate detail and symbolism contained within this portrait of John Dryden (1631–1700) allude to his status as a successful poet, playwright and translator of classical literature.
The portrait was painted by James Maubert in around 1695. Maubert may have been commissioned to paint it for Jacob Tonson (1655/56–1736), Dryden’s long-term publisher and founder of the Whig political group known as the Kit-Cat Club.
Dryden is portrayed wearing a luminous, yellow-lined blue silk robe, draped loosely around him imitating the classical Roman or Grecian style. The quality of the material speaks through its lustre, and is reflected in the matching blue silk indoor shoes, which were of the highest fashion – as was Dryden’s full-bottomed periwig.
Just behind Dryden on his desk rest books by Shakespeare, Homer, Virgil, Horace and Montaigne. The laurel wreath resting on top of the books indicates their quality, and suggests that they inspire and influence Dryden’s own writing.
The sitting dog at Dryden’s feet symbolises the qualities of loyalty, care and persistence, all of which were vital attributes for a professional writer and translator of the classics.
In the background, perched by an open window, is an eagle with a scroll of paper in its beak looking out toward Mount Parnassus, home of the classical Muses. Traditionally, eagles signified perception, courage and strength, and were considered to be the messengers of the gods.