art of portrait-1
The Art of the Portrait
Masterpieces of European Portrait-Painting
Agnolo Bronzino. Bia de’ Medici
The Great Age of the Portrait
Antoine-Francois Callet. Louis XVI. 1783
The portraits presented in this book are selected exclusively from works executed between the late Middle Ages and the seventeenth century. There are good reasons for limiting study to this period, for it was then that portraiture came into its own. It was this era that witnessed the revival and genuine renewal of the individualised, «au vif» depiction of privileged or highly esteemed persons, a genre largely neglected since Classical antiquity. From the fifteenth century onwards, not only princes, the high clergy and noblemen, but members of other social groups — merchants, craftsmen, bankers, humanist scholars and artists — sat for their portraits, keeping themselves, quite literally, in the public eye.
The period also saw the development of various portrait types, sub-genres which determined the forms taken by portraits in the following centuries. Examples of these are the «full-length portrait», usually reserved for ruling princes or members of the nobility (Titian Emperor Charles V), the «three-quarter-length portrait» (Giovanni Battista Moroni Don Gabriel de la Cueva) and the many different kinds of «head-and-shoulder portrait», the most frequently occurring portrait type, with its various angles at which the sitter posed in relation to the spectator. Typical poses included the «profile view» (Pisanello Young Lady of the Este Family) with its dignified, hieratic air reminiscent of Classical antiquity, the «three-quarters view», the «half-length» and the frontal, or «full-face view», with its often highly suggestive form of «direct address».
Titian. Emperor Charles V. 1532-1533
Full-length portraits were usually reserved for rulers and the nobility. Titian’s portrait of Charles V in a silver brocade coat, based on an earlier model by the Austrain painter Jacob Seisenegger, is an excellent example.
Besides the «individual portrait», whose function was the depiction of public figures who wished to demonstrate their social standing as autonomous individuals (see Hans Holbein’s Georg Gisze), the «group portrait» continued during this period to be cultivated as an artistic institution.1 Such portraits served as status symbols for corporate bodies such as guilds or other professional societies and trade associations, while at the same time defining the various roles and hierarchies within the groups themselves. Similarly, portraits of married couples and family portraits allowed the basic social units of the early modern state to project an image of themselves that was, in the main, consistent with the mores and conventions of their age.
It remains a source of continual astonishment that so infinitely complex a genre should develop in so brief a space of time, indeed within only a few decades of the fifteenth century, especially in view of the constraints imposed upon it by the individual requirements of its patrons. Its complexity is revealed in its rhetorical gesture, in its vast vocabulary of physical postures and facial expressions and in the range of emblems and other attributes characterising the sitters and symbolising their spheres of influence.
Hans Holbein the Younger. Georg Gisze. 1532
This merchant from Danzig was visiting London when his portrait was painted. The Latin inscription on the paper on his office wall certifies the portrait’s accuracy: «Distich on the likeness of Georg Gisze. What you see is Georg’s countenance and counterfeit; so bold is his eye, and thus his checks are formed. In his thirtv-fourth vear of Our Lord 1532.»
While the earliest works of this period, by early Netherlandish portraitists (see, for example, Jan van Eyck «Leal Souvenir» -«Tymotheos»), appear to have concentrated exclusively, and with almost microscopic attention to detail, on the rendering of external reality, rejecting psychology altogether, the portraits painted towards the end of the fifteenth century focused increasingly on inward states, on the evocation of atmosphere and the portrayal of mental and moral attitudes. The tendency to psychologise went so far that it eventually provoked a retreat from the open expression of thoughts or feelings. The sitter no longer revealed himself as an open book but turned to a mysterious, inward world from which the spectator was more or less excluded.
There are cultural and historical correlations between the portraits executed in the late Middle Ages and early modern era and the idea of human dignity so emphatically championed by Renaissance philosophy. In his tract «De dignitate hominis», for example, Pico della Mirandola’s creator-god, described as a «demiurge» (a skilled worker), has this to say of human destiny: «O Adam, we have not given you a certain abode, nor decided on any one particular face for you, nor have we provided you with any particular single ability, for you shall choose whatever dwelling-place pleases you, whatever features you consider becoming, whatever abilities you desire. All other beings are limited by natural laws that we have established. But no boundary shall impede your progress. You shall decide, even over Nature herself, according to your own free will, for in your hand have I laid your fate.»
Solemn diction cannot conceal a belief expressed in this passage in the autonomy of the individual. This notion lent metaphysical significance to the self-regard of a bourgeoisie whose confidence was already heightened by technical and economic progress, as well as by new opportunities accompanying geographical expansion and social mobility. But in providing an appropriately symbolic form for this view of the world, the portrait fulfilled a function that ‘was appreciated by other ruling strata in society as well, especially by those with absolute power.
Anthonis Mor. Two Canons. 1544
The most respected non-aristocratic groups in societv were the clergy, scholars and merchants. They paid considerable attention to their public image. Here is an example of the bust portrait usually commissioned by these groups.
Even when the bourgeoisie had become more solidly established, images of individuality evolved during the «heroic era» of portraiture continued to dominate the genre and to guide its exponents. Against the background of changed historical circumstances, however, the use of the portrait to symbolise rank and power inevitably led to derivative or anachronistic forms and to a dubious kind of pathos (as in the portraits of Franz von Lenbach during the second half of the nineteenth century). Still officially cultivated in the nineteenth century, portrait-painting was «certainly not on its death-bed, but (…) far more rarely practised than it used to be», as Jakob Burckhardt put it in 1885. The growth of photography, a medium capable of faster, easier and more faithful reproduction, seemed to confirm the obsolete nature of the painted portrait with its time-consuming sittings and laborious sketches. Furthermore, the new technique was considerably cheaper.
Only art movements which opposed the academies of the late nineteenth century — the various Realist, Impressionist and Naturalist secessions -achieved innovations that broke with the self-aggrandizing manner, as it now appeared, of an increasingly «nouveau riche» clientele. The few expressive portraits of the twentieth century have come from artists associated with openly figurative movements, or from those who have viewed the critique of society as an integral part of their work. For obvious reasons, the non-figurative avant-garde radically rejected portraiture. It is therefore hardly surprising that an artist as well-disposed to abstraction as Don Judd, one of the most prominent Minimal artists, should declare: «Unfortunately, art tends to become a likeness, but that’s not really what it is.»