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Gallery Exhibit, Catalog No. 40

Portraits of Melancholy
DURING THE 17TH CENTURY, melancholy was an umbrella term which covered everything from schizophrenia to a lover’s moping to religious ecstasies, revelations and visions.
     It was fashionable, too, having become a popular affectation of Elizabethan scholars, humanists, and artists during the 1580s.
     The English “vogue for melancholic affectation,” as Roy Strong has described it, owed much to the Florentine neoplatonist and natural magician, Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499). It was Ficino who initiated the Renaissance revaluation of melancholy, transforming “what had hitherto been regarded as the most calamitous of all the humours into the mark of genius.” (Strong 1969, p. 352)
     According to conventional humoral theory, there were four basic human temperaments:
  • melancholic (cold, dry, black, sour, thick, and heavy)
  • phlegmatic (cold, moist, colorless, tasteless, and watery)
  • choleric (hot, dry, yellow, bitter, thin, and volatile)
  • sanguine (hot, moist, red, and sweet).

In the Galenic medical tradition, melancholy (because of its cold and dry qualities) was considered inimical to life. However, Aristotelian physiology associated melancholy with heightened imaginative and intellectual powers. As Galenic and Aristotelian teachings were both current in the Renaissance, there was some confusion about the true nature of melancholy, both as a disease and an identity:

This ambiguity in the melancholic disposition is reflected likewise in the Saturnian influences to which the melancholic is subject, for the planet Saturn in Renaissance astrological thought is ambivalent: on the one hand, it is cold, dry, barren, and hostile to life; on the other hand it is the begetter of meditation and insight into the arcane and, therefore, especially favourable to scholars, philosophers and poets.

(Strong 1969, p. 352)

Given Ficino’s emphasis on the creative connection, it didn’t take long for the attitudes of melancholy to become “an indispensable adjunct to all those with artistic or intellectual pretensions,” especially in what were considered the deeper arts of philosophy (both natural and moral), politics, and poetry. But melancholy was also a political disease — the physical expression of “malcontents,” usually “gentlemen of good birth who had suffered frustration in their careers or who were out of tune with the prevailing political or religious attitudes of the day” (Strong 1969, p. 352). And the politics of melancholy crossed gender lines, too, as Robert Burton well knew:

For seldom should you see a hired servant, a poor handmaid, though ancient, that is kept hard to her work and bodily labour, a coarse country wench, troubled in this kind, but noble virgins, nice gentlewomen, such as are solitary and idle, live at ease, lead a life out of action and employment, that fare well, in great houses and jovial companies, ill-disposed peradventure of themselves, and not willing to make any resistance, discontented otherwise, of weak judgment, able bodies, and subject to passions ... such for the most part are misaffected, and prone to this disease.

(Anatomy of Melancholy, Pt. 1,
Sec. 3, Mem. 2, Subs. 4)

As constructed in Elizabethan and Jacobean portraiture, the most fashionable form of melancholy developed a visual vocabulary connoting deep thought, superior wit, and an artistic bent. The visual idiom of the melancholic has been identified by Strong, and included:

  • shadows and muted subtlety of color
  • crossed or folded arms
  • resting one’s head on one’s hand (or in more rural scenes, on the edge of a river bank)
  • reclining posture
  • negligent attire (e.g., an open shirt collar, material things cast aside)
  • a meditating mien
  • a sad face or despondent gaze
  • heavy-lidded stares
  • earnest stare
  • rapturous gaze (e.g., eyes cast ecstatically heavenwards)
  • pale skin
  • black dress
  • a large floppy hat over the eyes
  • solitude (e.g., with house, formal gardens, or city distanced from the subject)
  • alfresco scenery (e.g., a forest glade with a brook or stream)
  • the subject shown in shadow (e.g., in the shade of a tree)

     There is a sense in which Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy was an appropriate critical response to the romanticized image of melancholy then emerging. Burton’s scientific study (one of the premier texts of cultural biology) rejected the trappings of fashionable melancholy in preference of ancient ambiguities. His book was an unsettling account of the complex ways in which biological, social, and cultural processes interweave to produce the phenomena we experience as melancholy.
     The portrait Burton paints of the melancholic is decidedly less flattering than that of the pale-skinned, would-be poet reclining in black dress in a shaded bower.
     In the end, Burton, who himself suffered excruciating bouts of melancholy, decided that whatever its superficial appeal, melancholy was “the queen of diseases, and inexorable” (Pt. 1, Sec. 4, Mem. 1). While a combination of corrective physic, lifestyle changes, and “good air” (by which Burton meant a whole, healthy environment) might temporarily abate “the torture and extremity” of Inveterata melancholia incurabilis, only death could truly quiet the mental anguish of the melancholic. After his extensive review of every opinion ever written on the subject of “good” and “evil” prognostics, Burton agreed with

... that saying of Montanus ... “This malady doth commonly accompany them to their grave; physicians may ease, and it may lie hid for a time, but they cannot quite cure it, but it will return again more violent and sharp than at first, and that upon every small occasion or error”: as in Mercury’s weather-beaten statue, that was once all over gilt, the open parts were clean, yet there was in fimbriis aurum, in the chinks a remnant of gold: there will be some relics of melancholy left in the purest bodies (if once tainted), not so easily to be rooted out....

(The Anatomy of Melancholy,
Pt. 1, Sec. 4, Mem. 1)

adding that “both men and women must take notice” of it.

     In her essay on the character of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, Elaine Showalter comments that the

... epidemic of melancholy associated with intellectual and imaginative genius “curiously bypassed women.” Women’s melancholy was seen instead as biological, and emotional in origins.

(Showalter 1985, p. 81)

Ophelia is exemplar of this:

Whereas for Hamlet madness is metaphysical, linked with culture, for Ophelia it is a product of the female body and female nature, perhaps that nature’s purest form.

(Showalter 1985, p. 80)

Certainly, Burton would never have agreed with this. While accepting that Difficilis curatu in viris, multo difficilior in feminis because of women’s humoral predispositions, Burton did not believe in some clear-cut, gendered nature/culture polarity. Rather, as cited above, his statement concerning the politics of women’s melancholy invites us to attend to the many ambiguities found in early modern cultural representations of melancholy.
     I have four canonical portraits of melancholics from around Shakespeare’s period — the portraits date from 1514, 1624/1628, 1655, and 1709 — the majority of whom are female, and their psychological affliction, metaphysical.
     None of the portraits construct the woman melancholic from her womb, or offer any evidence of irreconcilable ontologies linked to bipolar gender.

Portrait of a melancholic
Abraham Cowley
(1618–1667), painted
by Sir Peter Lely.
View an enlarged 850 x 1022 pixel JPG image (182KB)
Portrait of Abraham Cowley by Sir Peter Lely (1 of 2)
The playing of a musical instrument
(especially a lute or guitar),
symbolizing love and pleasure,
was a favorite Lely device.

Although Oliver Cromwell demanded not to be “flattered” when Lely painted his portrait in 1654, but to have every facial blemish and roughness duly noted for posterity, cavalier poets such as Cowley preferred to be heroically idealized in a manner associated with the pre- and post-revolutionary court. Two different versions of manhood were at play here, with gender identities used to signify competing ideologies of power and social status. It is worth remembering that no matter how “feminine” Cowley’s idealized melancholic self may strike us today, Cowley pushed a male supremacist agenda, at one point even chiding painters for emasculating the sciences by (as was traditional) giving them female form.

17th-century engraving,
after another painting of
Cowley by Sir Peter Lely.
View an enlarged 600 x 749 pixel JPG image (99KB)
Portrait of Abraham Cowley by Sir Peter Lely (2 of 2)
This less romantic portrait of Cowley drops the symbolic trappings of the melancholic poetic swain in favor of a more realistic portrayal of the whole man.
» next (Portrait I)
» Portrait I   (Dürer’s Melencolia I, 1514)
» Portrait II   (Burton’s Anatomised Melancholy, 1628)
» Portrait III   (Cavendish’s “Studious She is and all Alone” frontispiece, 1655)
» Portrait IV   (Emblems for Melancholy and Pensiveness, 1709)
Related Links

• an IN BRIEF topic on Melancholy’s other half, the gay she-philosopher

• an IN BRIEF biography of Abraham Cowley

• a GALLERY exhibit on Sir Peter Lely’s skill at psychological portraiture



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