Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of John Dryden (1631-1700), poet and dramatist 

John Michael Wright (1617–1694)

Portrait of John Dryden (1631-1700), poet and dramatist, John Michael Wright
Oil on canvas
17th Century
30 1/4 x 25 in. (76.8 x 63.5 cm.)
Probably acquired by Sir John Nicholas of West Horseley Place, Surrey (d.1704); Thence by descent; Seen by Horace Walpole in 1764 at West Horseley; Recorded by Gideon Mantell at West Horsley Place, in the collection of the Rev. Weston, in 1850; Sold by Henry M. Weston 17th July 1908, Christie's, London; ‘The Collection of Historical Portraits removed from West Horsley Place’, lot 125; Bt. Parsons, 5 gns.; English Private Collection;
Horace Walpole’s Journals of Visits to Country Seats, in ‘The Walpole Society’, vol.xvi, 1927-8, p.60 (as a portrait of ‘Edmund Waller, young, with many mottoes out of the Latin Poets’); Gideon Mantell, ‘A Topographical History of Surrey’, (London 1850), p.96 (as Dryden).
This portrait of John Dryden presents a previously unseen view of the poet at an important moment in his career. It was painted, to judge from the combination of laurel leaves in the surrounding cartouche, in celebration of Dryden’s appointment as Poet Laureate in 1668. The Latin inscriptions, which are a selection of quotes from classical poets such as Ovid and Virgil, are included to demonstrate the sitter’s place among the greatest poets of civilization: the central epithet refers triumphantly to Dryden – ‘One equal to them all’.

Both Dryden and the artist here, John Michael Wright, appear to have viewed the aftermath of the calamitous events of the plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666 as a moment of positive change. Dryden’s 1667 Annus Mirabilis, one of his greatest works, challenged the view that the events were a divine punishment for Charles II’s morally loose regime. The work established Dryden’s reputation as the leading literary figure of the Restoration. Wright, likewise, benefited from the opportunities presented by London’s cultural rebirth, and won important commissions, such as the twenty two full-length portraits of City aldermen.

This picture’s recent emergence adds to our knowledge of Wright’s career. His status as one of the King’s ‘official’ artists has long been something of a mystery, with his apparent title Pictor Regius, seen on a number of his works, being seen as a self-indulgence. But, as more works such as the present picture come to light, it does seem that Wright was at the centre of the court’s cultural milieu. In addition to painting Dryden, he also painted, at about the same time, one of Charles II’s favourite actors, John Lacy [Royal Collection], a work that hung in the King’s dining room at Windsor. Wright was also responsible for perhaps the finest portrait of Charles II [Royal Collection], as well as the ceiling for Charles’ Whitehall bedchamber (a picture which, given Charles’ proclivities, must have been one of the pictures most often admired by the King.) It is possible therefore that the present picture was commissioned by or for the king, or by a leading figure at court. Until the early twentieth century the picture descended in the collection of the Nicholas family and their descendants; Sir Edward Nicholas (1593-1669) was Charles II’s Secretary of State, and, together with his son Sir John, put together a collection of historical portraits at West Horseley Place in Surrey. The collection appears to have included a number of works by Wright.
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