Small Faces

The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Through March 18, 2012

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in conjunction with the Bode-Museum, Berlin, has gathered over 150 fifteenth-century portraits: sculptures, drawings, paintings, and bronzes. Unlike most Renaissance portrait exhibitions, this one limits its purview to Italian artists and focuses specifically on the courts of Florence and Venice, as well as the princely courts of Ferrara, Milan, and Naples (the Met has supplemented the exhibition with some examples, from its permanent collection, of Northern European Renaissance works; not to be missed is Rogier van der Weyden's three-quarter portrait of Francesco d'Este (after 1475; below right), here displayed in a vitrine so as to permit a rare viewing of the d'Este coat of arms and dedication van der Weyden painted on the verso). This approach wisely narrows our view of this seminal moment in history, one that literally defined the way that "the portrait" would be viewed for centuries to come.

The exhibition is divided into several rooms, giving examples of portraits of women, portraits of men, and pictures depicting the new ruling classes, such as the Medicis. The show opens with works by Donatello and by Fra Angelico. Here we see the birth of the portrait: a series of four profiles of men with turban-like headcloths, a codified form of portraiture -- what the Dutch later called troines, or types. Paolo Uccello's "Profile of a Man" (1430-40) and Masaccio's "Profile of a Man" (1426-27) are spectacular examples of the artist wringing out of this genre the personalities of the individual while still maintaining one foot in the past; we see them taking a tentative step in the direction of what we would consider today to be a portrait. In The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), Jacob Burckhardt wrote, with regard to the changing face of the portrait, "Man previously was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, In Italy this veil first melted.... An objective treatment and consideration became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted itself.... Man became a spiritual individual, and was recognized as such."

The second room, showing portraits of women, represents the greatest shift in thinking -- not just in portraiture, but in suitable subjects for a portrait. A mere century before, Giovanni Boccaccio had written, "The female is an imperfect animal, stirred by a thousand passions both unpleasant and abominable even to think of, let alone to consider: if men looked upon women as they should they would take care to steer away." In Florence, though, Botticelli brought the portrayal of women to a high order of painting. Artists had begun to see female portraiture as, first and foremost, a tribute to idealized beauty. Paintings were documents of a betrothal or a celebration of a marriage; the idealization of the subject was, in effect, a testament to her spiritual worth. One contemporary motto ran, Virtutem Forma Decorat (Beauty Adorns Virtue). With his "Ideal Portrait of a Lady (Simonetta Vespucci)" (1475-80, top), Botticelli was less interested in mimesis, wanting to display his artful portrayal of the subject in order to render her more virtuous and worthy. In contrast, Lorenzo di Credi's "Portrait of a Young Woman"(late 1490s) is an otherworldly study in the sacrament of marriage. Ginevra di Giovanni di Niccolò, the daughter of a Florentine merchant, holds an engagement ring, her features blurred by the sfumato so highly prized in da Vinci's paintings, and she is surrounded by juniper bushes (her namesake).

Botticelli's "Giuliano de' Medici" (1478–80) is more of an homage than an actual portrait, painted after its subject's assassination; Botticelli worked from de' Medici's death mask (also on view). We are perhaps more accustomed to this kind of Renaissance portrait -- the strong patricians, their families, their wives -- presented for display in the family house. These served to promote the idea of their worthiness; many Florentines believed that their nobility must be earned through striving and success. Indeed, with courtly intrigues and assassinations, sometimes a direct lineage was impossible to maintain.

Another aspect, though, to these more familiar images is Domenico Ghirlandaio's "Portrait of an Old Man and a Boy" (1490, left). Ghirlandaio renders, in tempera's lush hues, ugliness -- not of character, but of visage (the old man probably suffered from rhinophyma) -- tempered by a sensitive portrayal of familial love through his grandson. Aristotle's Poetics speaks of the possibility of creating beauty through a masterful portrayal of what is ugly, in order to describe what is good. Ghirlandaio brings this to life by showing us the scarred face of the grandfather seen through the adoring eyes of the child.

Side by side, Andrea Mantegna's "Francesco Gonzaga" (n.d.) and Pisanello's "Leonello d'Este" (1444) show us just how little has changed in six centuries. Mantegna's delicate tempera painting, with its pinks and blues, might remind us of Picasso's "The Actor" (1904) from his Rose Period (in the Met's collection). Pisanello's portrait combines a rich brocade tunic, a whorly head of stylish hair, and a sinewy rose bush climbing behind the profile of d'Este. It relates to nothing so much as van Gogh's "La Berceuse (Woman Rocking a Cradle; Augustine-Alix Pellicot Roulin, 1851–1930)" (1889), also at the Met. No, really -- go compare the two.

Isabella d'Este wrote to the Countess of Acerra in 1493, with regard to a recent gift of a portrait, "Now that we have your image both on paper and in wax, we shall hold it very dear and look at it often." We still are. - Bradley Rubenstein

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is at 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York.


Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.

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