art of portrait-2
Portrait — Counterfeit — Likeness
Giovanni Bellini. Leonardo Loredan, Doge of Venice. 1501-1505
Bellini’s portrait of the Venetian Doge, Leonardo Loredan (1438-1521) is reminiscent of bust portraits by 15th-century Florentine sculptors whose style had developed from the medieval bust reliquary. Loredan was doge from 1501-1521. As military commander-in-chief he led Venice through a period of crisis when the town was besieged by the «League of Cambrai».
Disregarding Judd’s implied value judgement, it may be noted that his use of language, possibly unintentionally, echoes seventeenth-century usage, in which the terms «portrait» and «likeness» were understood to mean «pictorial imitation» of any kind, thus equating them with the concept of representation in general. The same is true of the older synonym «counterfeit» (Lat. «contrafacere» = to imitate). In a book of patterns and sketches, appropriately enough called his «Livre de portraiture», Villard de Honnecourt (13th century) used the term «counterfeit» not only to denote representations of human beings, but also for drawings of animals. Only much later did the use of these terms become more restricted, indeed long after the portrait had established itself as a genre and collections of portraits of «famous men», or «viri illustres» (like that by Paolo Giovio, 1521) had become highly sought-after collector’s items.
While the French engraver Abraham Bosse (1602-1676) still defined «portraiture» as «a general word for painting and engraving», equating «portrait» in meaning with «tableau» (a picture or painting), it was Nicolas Poussin’s friend Andre Felibien who first suggested that the term «portrait» be reserved exclusively for likenesses of (certain) human beings. Felibien further suggested the use of the term «figure» for the pictorial rendering of animals, while the term «representation» was to be used for the depiction of vegetable or inorganic forms, for plants, or, at the very bottom of the pyramid of being, stones.
The tendency, inherent in this «modern», anthropocentric terminology, to draw clear distinctions between humans and other living beings possibly marks the end of a typically feudal «symbiosis» between animals and humans. It is perhaps of historical interest here to note that animals were considered as legal entities or «persons» in the Middle Ages, and that they could, for example, be brought to trial.
Felibien’s hierarchical construction implies that individualisation is a term that can only be used in connection with human beings. Arthur Schopenhauer, too, in his major philosphical work «The World as Will and Idea» (1819), contends that animals, because of their species, cannot be portrayed (Book 3, § 45). Portraits, he wrote, could only be made of the human countenance and form, whose appearance induced a «purely aesthetic contemplation» in the spectator, «filling us with an inexpressible sense of well-being that transcends us and all that tortures our souls.»
Albrecht Durer. An Artist Drawing a Seated Man. 1525
An important mechanical device designed to help the portraitist was a square pane of glass upon which the artist traced the outlines of the sitter. From here the outlines were copied onto the panel. The artist would view his sitter through a peep-hole located at the top of a rod whose height could sometimes — as seen above — be adjusted. This machine enabled artists to apply the principles of centralized perspective described in Leon Battista Alberti’s treatise on painting (c. 1435).
Similarity and Idealisation
However exaggerated we may consider Schopenhauer’s Romantic enthusiasm to be, and however distant his ideas may seem to us now, it can hardly be denied that portraits continue to fascinate us, especially those of the period we are considering here. Almost no other genre of painting is capable of transmitting such an intimate sense of lived presence over so great a distance in time. This undoubtedly is linked to our subconscious attribution to the portrait of authenticity: we expect a faithful rendering that shows us what the sitter was really like.
Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether it is actually possible to empathise with portraits executed in earlier periods, or whether psychological explanations based on our own, emotionally-coloured perceptions are ultimately tenable, it must be pointed out that genuine likenesses were — in any case — not necessarily always the order of the day.
Indeed, instead of the likeness of a ruler, coins during the early Middle Ages would often carry the «imago» or «effigies» of a Roman emperor in whose dynastic or official succession the ruler of the day — by «translatio imperii» — saw himself as standing.» The actual appearance of a living prince was therefore less important than the political and social institution within whose tradition he wished, or demanded, to be seen.
Anonymous. King John the Good. 1360
This did not change until the late Middle Ages, when it became unacceptable to substitute one likeness for another. One may be quite right to doubt whether an early French profile portrait of King John the Good, painted c. 1360 at the same time as the portrait of Rudolf IV of Habsburg, really shows the person named in the inscription. However, scepticism of this kind is perhaps less appropriate with regard to Jan van Eyck’s Tymotheos portrait (Jan van Eyck «Leal Souvenir» -«Tymotheos»), especially since the artist has attempted to dispel such doubts from the outset. The inscription LEAL SOUVENIR — loyal remembrance — certifies the authenticity of the portrait; its purpose, not unlike that of a notary’s attestation, is to verify the identity of the likeness and the sitter.
Raphael. Donna Velata. 1513
Attributes of this unidentified woman’s dress, her veil and the pearls in her hair, suggest the painting was executed to mark the occasion of her marriage.
«Identity» here evidently has little to do with that consistent sense of self which links several periods in a person’s life — a notion that does not appear to have gained currency prior to the emergence of seventeenth-century Neo-Stoicist ideals of constancy — but is rather used to describe the relationship between the external appearance of a person and its apprehension by others: the mimetic equation. «All similarity… is an image or sign of equality» (Similitudo autem omnis est aequalitatis species seu signum), wrote Nikolaus von Kues, a contemporary of Jan van Eyck. Natalie Zemon Davis has shown that we can only understand the sixteenth-century story of Martin Guerre, whose wife was deceived by the appearance of her husband’s double, if we remember that recognition, or identification, even of intimate acquaintances, had not yet become existentially significant in everyday life. The notion of individuality implied by such recognition does not seem to have replaced more traditional patterns of thought until the adoption of Roman Law by the social elite. Portraits now assumed an important role in helping to identify individuals. Inevitibly, this altered the dominant aesthetic, intensifying naturalistic demands for a faithful pictorial imitiation of reality.
Andrea Mantegna. Cardinal Lodovico Trevisano.
The sitter, viewed slightly from below, was formerly identified as Cardinal Mezzarota. However, more recent research suggests he is Cardinal Lodovico Trevisano (1401-1465). Trevisano was personal physician to Cardinal Gabriele Condulmaro. On later becoming Pope Eugene IV, Condulmaro appointed Trevisano to high ecclesiastical office.
Verifiable resemblance therefore became an essential criterion of portrait-painting during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. This greatly contrasted with the later, almost normative views expounded in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s «Aesthetics», which raged at «almost repulsively lifelike portraits» and demanded that the portrait-painter flatter his subject, paying less attention to outward appearance and «presenting us with a view which emphasises the subject’s general character and lasting spiritual qualities.» According to this view, it was spiritual nature that should determine our picture of the human being.
Jan Van Eyck. Cardinal Nicola Albergati. 1432
Jan van Eyck probably made silvcrpoint preliminary drawings for most of his portraits. This study was made for his portrait of Cardinal Albergati, whose visit to Bruges lasted only from 8th to 11th December 1431. Written on the drawing are precise colour notes for the painting itself.
The concept of identity expressed here derives from the principle of inwardness in German idealist philosophy. Although it might therefore support an analysis of the nineteenth-century portrait, it would be out of place in an account of the genre’s earlier history. The unusual degree of accuracy found in early likenesses must be seen in conjunction with the absence of categories of beauty or ugliness. Earlier portraits, for example by van Eyck, seem entirely indifferent to judgement from this quarter. It was only in the late fifteenth century that studies of ideal proportions, especially by Italian artists, led to the establishment of aesthetic norms. In his treatise on painting Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo (1538-1600) expresses the essential purpose of these new standards by demanding of the portrait-painter, that he «emphasise the dignity and grandeur of the human being, suppressing Nature’s irregularities.»
Sandro Botticelli. Young man. C. 1483
Albrecht Durer. Hieroronymus Holzschuher. 1526
This portrait of a Nuremberg patrician, a friend of Durer, was orginally kept in a locked case. This suggests that it was not intended for offical use, a hypothesis reinforced by the fact that Holzschuhcr is bareheaded. The sitter’s piercing gaze may indicate that Durer wished — as in his similiarly staring «Apostle» Paul — to characterise Holzschuher’s melancholic
Titian. Man (alias «Ariosto»). 1512
Titian’s portrait of «Anosto», showing the sitter from the side with his bent arm resting on a parapet, established a new type of portrait which found many admirers, including Rembrandt (see Rembrandt Self-Portrait).