Thursday, February 21, 2019

Does Nicholas Hilliard's Sexiest Miniature Depict the Shakespearean Actor Nathan Field?

Unknown Man by Nicholas Hilliard (left, Victoria & Albert Museum). Nathan Field, 1615, by William Larkin (Dulwich Picture Gallery).
Nicholas Hilliard's masterpiece Unknown Man Against Background of Fire is described by Erna Auerbach as “a striking picture of human tragedy.”
Here, the sitter, whoever he was, does not matter, but the intense feeling which his image expressed, moves and touches us profoundly.  As if it were a symbol of burning love, the card on which the parchment is pasted is the ace of hearts.  The “burning” lover wears a fine linen shirt, wide open in front, a locket hangs on a long chain and he presses it with his left hand against his heart, as if it contained the picture of his beloved mistress, and, in strong contrast to the white of the garment, the noble and ecstatic face with dark hair and beard, turn to the right, looks at us with fanatical eyes.
Auerbach doesn't make many mistakes, but she is obviously incorrect in stating that it doesn't matter who this miniature depicts. In the comparison above, the sitter on the right, said to have been painted by William Larkin, is identified as Nathan Field, a Blackfriar actor born in 1587. Field started as a child actor, likely playing women’s roles. Later he became a comic actor, who fancied himself a ladies man. The 1623 First Folio lists him as one of the principal actors of Shakespeare's plays. And since Field wrote plays as well, it's possible he even collaborated with Shakespeare. 

The similarities between the two sitters are obvious, but do note the ear shape. Also bear in mind that eye color is usually meaningless in identification because aging varnish will change the colors of pigments over time. And, in this instance, Hilliard painted the "fanatical" eyes as reflecting fire.


As to costume, these are the only two Elizabethan portraits I’ve ever come across in which men posed in their nightshirts. Auerbach dated the fiery miniature to c. 1600 based on painting style, but painting style is sketchy when used in isolation. And in this case costume dating isn't much help because, well, the jacks are wearing their pajamas. It's very possible the miniature was painted later in Hilliard's career.   

London's National Portrait Gallery is currently exhibiting the miniatures of Hilliard and his talented French apprentice Isaac Oliver. Click here to visit Elizabethan Treasures: the Miniatures of Hilliard and Oliver. I wish I were in London right now, but, no, I'm stuck in Mississippi, where it won't stop raining.

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