The portrait in the North (Belgium/the Netherlands)
Jan Van Eyck, Marco Barbarigo (c.1449) | Peter Paul Rubens, Self-Portrait (1623) | Rembrandt, Self-Portrait (1661) | Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Dr Gachet Seated at a Table (1890) | Rene Magritte, Not to be Reproduced (1937) | Michael Borremans, Portrait (2005)
The Italian Renaissance, starting with the great quattrocento (15th century) trio Donatello, Brunelleschi and Masaccio, is one of the key periods in history of art.The subject of portraiture is an intriguing aspect of the period that is put under the lens.Today we have photos taken regularly, but how many of us go to the painter or sculptor for a portrait? Back in the 15th century, painted portraits or busts were commissioned by the politically or economically powerful. Not much has changed.
Portraiture in the Early Renaissance, both north and south of the Alps, was the crucial developing phase of development of this genre in Europe. It heralded the modern-day portrait. The focus was no longer exclusively on altarpieces, in which man made a timid appearance, as happened in the Middle Ages. Private patrons of means also started to commission portraits which became an important genre of art in its own right.
Some portraits were intentionally small and, thus, portable. Foremost among them were those by miniaturist Jacometto Veneziano. This exhibition (at the Metropolitan, New York) traces the development of portraiture as a genre, beginning with three tempera on panel paintings produced in c. 1440. From this early phase are several portraits of women with ivory skin, seen in profile, and endowed with lavish dress and jewellery. These portraits were probably produced on the occasion of their betrothal. Within this section is a stunning portrait of a woman by Antonio del Pollaiuolo.
Two arresting Sandro Botticelli portraits of Simonetta Vespucci, Giuliano de’ Medici’s lover, have a big presence. In one, the beautiful sitter’s hair is elaborated with pearls, while in the other, her blonde mane is highlighted with real gold, which has a truly glistening effect. A good section of the exhibition is dedicated to the Medici men, the most powerful family of Renaissance Florence. As you would expect, Lorenzo the Magnificent features prominently, with his death mask also being on display.
This then leads you to another section of portraits of prominent Florentines. Among the better known and touching paintings is Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Portrait of an Old Man and a Boy of 1490, where an old man who suffers from rhinophyma, which is why his nose is covered in warts, is recorded in a tender moment with a young boy.
Other rooms tackle further aspects of portraiture, but I will fast forward to the last phases highlighted – to portraits produced in Venice and the Venetia region of Italy. Foremost among these are those by Giovanni Bellini and Antonello da Messina. Antonello’s influence on the development of portraiture in the Veneto (thanks to his being influenced by Northern Renaissance portraiture) was of seminal importance. His achievements were of outstanding importance.
One immediately notices the predilection for the profile views in painting of the early phases of portraiture being reviewed. The practice wavered in the next decades. The use of the profile view may seem archaic when compared to the three-quarter view, that was heralded primarily in countries to the North of the Alps; but there is a good reason for its persistence in Italy – the influence of Roman portrait coins.
What is clear is the fact that even though all of the portraits show a likeness of the sitter and capture the sitter’s character, it is the Northern Renaissance artists who apply a tradition of harsh realism which they inherited from the Gothic Style. The inclusion of a Portrait of a Man with a Roman Coin by Hans Memling emphasises this point.
Beautifully curated and providing a brilliant nostalgic journey to a time of prime importance in the history of civilisation, we are given a unique opportunity to be transported back to the Renaissance and to relive its people’s loves and ambitions, even if for a little while. [x]