The Sad Boys of the Renaissance

Jonathan McAloon
Jun 10, 2019 2:15PM

Isaac Oliver, Young Man Seated under a Tree, 1590–5. Royal Collection Trust. © Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II 2019.

Nicholas Hillard, Young Man among Roses, ca. 1587. © The Victoria and Albert Museum

In 1574, when archetypal Renaissance man Sir Philip Sidney—an English scholar, soldier, aristocrat, diplomat, and prominent Elizabethan poet—was traveling in Italy, he sat for a portrait by the Venetian artist Paolo Veronese. The now-lost painting would have been an invaluable record of a commingling between two giants of the Renaissance. All that remains of their meeting, however, is the testimony of French diplomat Hubert Languet, who found the depiction of his friend too “sad and thoughtful.”

In 16th century Europe, it was fashionable for men to be sad and thoughtful. “Generally the world, as a settled thing, is pleased to grace [sorrow] with a particular esteem,” wrote the French essayist Michel de Montaigne in his aptly titled article “Of Sorrow” (1580). This was doubly the case in England; other nations would come to refer to the phenomenon of male melancholy as “the English malady” or “the Elizabethan malady.”

Male poets including Sidney wrote large bodies of work about their feelings of alienation, isolation, and rejection in love. The English composer John Dowland, famous throughout the continent, is remembered as the first tortured singer-songwriter. His lyrics frequently relate his sadness. In one piece, Dowland describes being locked in a dark prison of his dejection. His self-given motto was Semper Dowland semper dolens: “Always Dowland, always grieving.”

Isaac Oliver, The Three Brothers Browne, 1598. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


In addition to verse and song, fashionable, powerful men wanted their vulnerability captured in paint. Aristocratic sitters who once sought to appear respectable, collected, and straight-backed now let their emotions affect their expressions and demeanors. They stare out at us from paintings by the English artist Nicholas Hilliard and his French-born pupil Isaac Oliver. Their sitters’ intensity is heightened by the intimate medium of the miniature, small paintings meant to be seen by only a few eyes.

In Oliver’s A Young Man Seated Under a Tree (1590–95), a young gentleman dressed predominantly in black, like Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet, slouches against a tree. His face is serious, conveying both the intensity of his mental state and his desolation. In the background is a stately home with a cultivated Elizabethan garden—genteel but also restrictive. A distant couple walks through the hedge mazes. The sitter, though, is alone.

One of the most familiar and characteristic images of fragile Elizabethan masculinity is Hilliard’s portrait miniature Young Man among Roses (ca. 1587). This flamboyantly dressed man rests a hand on his heart in a display of fidelity as he leans, smolderingly, against a tree, thorny rose vines climbing them both. His pose, situation, and expression evince a poised, possibly self-imposed loneliness. The sitter is thought by many to be Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex. A favorite of Queen Elizabeth, Essex was considered the most fashionable man in England—and for a time, the most powerful. He was also known for writing despondent poetry that cast him as particularly unfortunate and lamented his frequent falls from royal favor and affection.

Unknown English artist, John Donne, ca. 1595. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

How did melancholy become so chic? In Elizabethan times, illnesses and one’s own personality were thought to be determined by the balance of four bodily fluids, or humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. It was an excess of black bile from the spleen that led to a person becoming melancholic in temperament, though sometimes vapors from certain organs were also blamed, as was planetary alignment. Now we are inclined to see melancholy as a catch-all for various types of mental health issues, along with the states of everyday sadness that permeate especially bleak times.

During the Renaissance, mortality rates were high and plagues frequent; constant religious wars caused internal as well as civil unrest. Seasonal Affective Disorder was certainly a factor. In the middle of the 16th century, Europe underwent a period of cooling now called the Little Ice Age. England—never flush with sun—was even grayer and colder than usual, with shorter days. During this time, suicide rates were at an all-time high.

While it was often considered a serious malady, for the most part, melancholy became a desirable, romantic disposition for a young man. Those afflicted were supposed to be pale (caused by blood rushing away from the head to the heart, a belief promoted by the English physician Thomas Willis). They were often found to stare into space, their eyes fixed. They got no sleep. In an anonymous portrait from around 1595, the English Metaphysical poet John Donne looks abstractedly yet intensely away from the viewer. His face is framed by the darkness of his hat, his clothes, and the background, which seems to move over him in a black mist.

Nicholas Hilliard, Unknown man against a background of flames, c. 1600. © Victoria & Albert Museum.

Nicholas Hilliard, Portrait of Henry Percy, Ninth Earl of Northumberland, c. 1594–5. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Melancholics were liable to obsession; love was spoken about as a sickness that could only be cured by the submission of its object of affection. Encoded in this amorous attitude was a certain brand of misogyny and toxic masculinity—the women who didn’t return these mens’ amorous feelings are cast as villains. As to habitat, you’d find these somber boys wandering alone, sighing in gardens and hedged labyrinths, in forests and by streams. Forgetting to dress oneself—a sign of distraction or desolation—was turned into a studied style.

The pale lover with an earring in An Unknown Man (ca. 1600), attributed by different scholars to both Hilliard and Oliver, not only has his collar undone, but wears no doublet—a wanton gesture that was essentially the equivalent of sending a nude—as he stands among the flames of his own passion. He stares with eyes eternally “fixed” on the onlooker, presumably the paramour who owned the miniature. Though his damp hair betrays that he is visibly affected by the heat, it doesn’t yet have the strength to overwhelm his facial pallor. The lovesick young man turns his locket toward his chest—the source of his exquisite pain—thereby bringing the face of his beloved to his own flaming heart.

In Oliver’s cabinet miniature of Lord Herbert of Cherbury (ca. 1613–14), who was another one of those overachieving poet-scholar-soldiers, the subject holds a shield brandished with a flaming heart. A compendium of melancholic symbols of romantic despair, the work pictures Lord Herbert reclining by a brook in a solitary wood. His shirt is open, tassels hanging, and his head rests in his hand.

Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, 1514. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unknown Artist, Man in Mourning for Sir Philip Sidney, c. 1587. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

As well as the mark of a lover, melancholy was seen as proof of other accomplishments and innate qualities like intellect, seriousness, and nobility. In his 1621 book Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton says there “is no greater cause of melancholy than idleness.” It was socially useful, then, to appear melancholic if you aspired to give off an air of moneyed leisure.

Hilliard wrote one of the first English-language books about visual art, The Arte of Limning, around 1600. In it, he categorized himself as suffering from episodes of “mallancholy” and “passions of sorrowe and greefe.” He was an ambitious man, keen for painting to be considered a gentleman’s art rather than a laborer’s craft. That he cast himself as depressed in some ways proves his aspirations.

The Aristotelian principle that genius and melancholy were linked was perfectly suited to ideals of Renaissance humanism. Early 16th-century depictions of melancholy—usually as an allegorical woman—are mysterious. They exude a poised intellectualism, but employ levels of symbolism that are now lost on us. In Albrecht Dürer’s famous 1514 engraving Melencolia I, an androgynous, winged figure with a furrowed brow and skillfully shadowed face in hand, sits with the trappings of various humanist disciplines around her.

The figure is usually described with feminine pronouns, but the hair and facial features are similar to that of Dürer himself, who, in his autobiography, cast himself as a child prodigy. Many subsequent thinkers of his time tended to agree with the artist’s self-assessment. One of his admirers was Hilliard, for whom Dürer was a guiding spirit. For many art historians today, this work represents the moment the idea of the melancholy genius was solidified in Western art. From that point on, melancholy seems to have become a decidedly masculine affair.

The pose of the gloomy intellectual has remained a fashionable one for men ever since. So, too, has that of the alienated man whose sense of rejection, whether social or romantic, is somehow flipped to make him seem more eligible or desirable. The body of visual art that captures this way of thinking seems especially relevant again in an age of increased awareness about men’s mental health and social conditioning, but also the employment of their sensitivity and vulnerability as “nice guys.”

As they peer out at us from their portraits, these Elizabethan sad boys seem to embody John Donne’s immortal opening words from his poem “Witchcraft by a Picture”: “I fix mine eye on thine, and there / Pity my picture burning in thine eye.”

Jonathan McAloon