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.”