Baroque and Rococo


Baroque and Rococo Art Map


The Art of the Portrait


Masterpieces of European Portrait-Painting




  The Art of the Portrait
  The Great Age of the Portrait
  Origins of the Portrait
  Jan van Eyck: Tymotheos
  Jan van Eyck: The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini
  Jan van Eyck: The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin
  Rogier van der Weyden: Portrait of a Lady
  Jean Fouquet: Etienne Chevalier Presented by St Stephen
  Hans Memling: Man with a Roman Coin
  Antonello da Messina: Portrit of a Man, known as "Il Condottiere"
  Early Portrait of a Ruler
  Piero della Francesca: Federigo da Montefeltro and his Wife Battista Sforza
  Portraits of Renaissance Women
  Pisanello: Young Lady of the Este Family
  Leonardo da Vinci: The Lady with the Ermine (Cecilia Gallerani)
  Leonardo da Vinci: Mona Lisa (La Gioconda)
  Giorgione: Portrait of a Young Lady ("Laura")
  Piero di Cosimo: Simonetta Vespucci
  Agnolo Bronzino: Laura Battiferri
  The Psychological Portrait
  Lorenzo Lotto: Young Man before a White Curtain
  Lorenzo Lotto: Man with a Golden Paw
  Moretto da Brescia: Portrait of a Young Man
  Portraits and Caricatures
  Quentin Massys: Old Woman (The Queen of Tunis)
  Portraits of Renaissance Humanists
  Luca Signorelli: Portrait of a Middle-Aged Man
  Agnolo Bronzino: Portrait of Ugolino Martelli
  Raphael: Baldassare Castiglione
  Lucas Cranach the Elder: Dr. Cuspinian and his Wife
  Hans Holbein the Younger: Erasmus of Rotterdam
  Mythologising Portraits
  Agnolo Bronzino: Andrea Doria as Neptune
  Nicoletto da Modena (?): Francis I of France as an Antique God
  Portraits of Popes and Cardinals
  Raphael: Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giuliano de' Medici and Luigi de Rossi
  Titian: Pope Paul III, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese and Duke Ottavio Farnese
  Portraits of Artists and Collectors
  Lorenzo Lotto: Andrea Odoni
  Titian: Jacopo de Strada
  Artists' Self-Portraits
  Albrecht Durer: Self-Portrait with a Fur Coat
  Nicolas Poussin: Self-Portrait
  Rembrandt: Self-Portraits
  Portrait of a Friend
  Hans Holbein the Younger: The French Ambassadors to the English Court
  "Teste Composte"
  Giuseppe Arcimboldo: Vertumnus
  Portraits of 16th and 17th-century Rulers
  Titian: Emperor Charles V after the Battle of Miihlberg
  Anthony van Dyck: Charles I of England, Hunting
  Hyacinthe Rigaud: Louis XIV of France
  Philippe de Champaigne: Triple Portrait of Cardinal Richelieu
  Marriage and Family Portraits
  Peter Paul Rubens: Rubens and Isabella Brant under the Honeysuckle
  Jacob Jordaens: The Artist and his Family
  Portraits of Children
  Giovanni Francesco Caroto: Boy with a Drawing
  Jan van Scorel: The Schoolboy
  Diego Velazquez: The Infante Philip Prosper
  Dutch Civic Guard Portraits
  Rembrandt: "The Night Watch"
  Portraits of Regents
  Frans Hals: The Governors of the Old Men's Almshouse at Haarlem
  Anatomy Lessons
  Rembrandt: The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp
  Portraits of Fools and Dwarfs
  Diego Velazquez: The Dwarf "El Primo"


Sandro Botticelli
Profile of a Young Woman

The Great Age of the Portrait



Problems of Portrait Interpretation


Ranuccio Farnese

Ranuccio (1530-1565) was the son of Pierluigi Farnese (1503-1547), whose own father,
Pope Paul III (his real name was Alessandro Farnese), had made him Duke of Piacenza and Parma.
Ranuccio was in Venice in 1542, and it is thought that Titian painted the young nobleman's
portrait during that year. The cross decorating his robe identifies him as a Knight of Malta.


Most art historians continued to see the portrait in the light of Hegel's views until well into the twentieth century. The Expressionist aesthetic continued in this vein, giving metaphysical presence to the "essential being" of the subject portrayed. It was thought that this quality could be ascertained directly from physiognomic expression.
Philosophical and scientific interest in psychological questions increased, especially in Italy, during the second half of the quattrocento.18 It had become a matter of compelling urgency to gain a clearer picture of the "pathological" significance of certain mimic or gestural manners of expression, since emergent capitalist trade relations demanded the ability to "read" the intentions of business partners and to seek protection against fraud. A similar situation had arisen in the political sphere, where exposure to the new economic conditions made it essential to establish some means of orientation in a world of increasingly unstable and opaque interrelations. It was therefore not surprising that many of the early physiognomic handbooks were composed specifically for merchants and statesmen.


Giovanni Battista della Porta
Physiognomic comparison between a human and an animal.
From: De humana physiogno-mta.
Vico Equcnse 1586


Writers such as Michele Savonarola, the grandfather of the famous Dominican preacher, or the scholar Pomponio Gaurico committed themselves to the interpretation of bodily expressions. They analysed the expressive force of different parts of the face, the eyes for example, which even today's characterological studies regard as the "mirror of the soul". In so doing, they would frequently allow themselves to be guided by the notion of the humours found in earlier, medical theories of the temperaments. Studies undertaken by Leonardo da Vinci, too, attached separate meanings to different parts of the body. The various grotesque figures which resulted from his work on the classification of anatomical and physiognomic aspects of the human face have rightly been seen as precursors of the modern caricature (Leonardo da Vinci Grotesque Heads).


Leonardo da Vinci
Grotesque Heads


However, most physiognomic tracts were highly schematic in approach. Often, as with Giovanni Battista della Porta, they drew psychological parallels from what appeared to be physical resemblances between animals and human beings, much in the tradition of the medieval "bestiarium humanum". Such sources are unlikely to help us understand the Renaissance or Baroque portrait, unless, of course, we assume the artists also sought advice from them, or translated them into their own visual medium. From a cultural and historical point of view it may be quite correct to see portraiture and physiognomy as deriving from related needs and interests. However, the mechanistic application to contemporary portrait-painting of classifications found in such compendia can easily lead to misinterpretation. Indeed, it is doubtful whether today's spectator can interpret the sitter's gestures correctly at all. Would it be correct, for example, to attribute a "fixed" gaze to Antonello da Messina's so-called Condottiere (Antonello da Messina "Il Condottiere")? According to Pomponio Gaurico, this was a sign of insanity - a reading which the portrait as a whole hardly serves to corroborate. His gaze and protruding lower lip have led various critics to attribute to the sitter a firm strength of will, indeed almost ruthless defiance. Thus he has come to be seen as cold-blooded and inhuman, a power-hungry usurper and commander of mercenaries.


Antonello da Messina
"Il Condottiere"


The most well-known object of psycho-diagnostic projection, however, is Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa (Leonardo da Vinci Mona Lisa), whose smile has attracted almost every interpretation imaginable. It is prudent to be wary of the diagnostic interpretion of expression. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg penned a well-known warning against the dangers of pseudo-scientific attempts to discern the personality on the basis of arbitrary physiognomic characteristics.


Leonardo da Vinci
Mona Lisa


It remains open to debate whether the psychological aspect of portrait-painting - though undeniably intended by artists and patrons - really was quite as important as art critics, influenced by a later aesthetics of empathy, continued to propagate. Instead of attempting - in an entirely unhistorical manner - to determine the personality of the sitter through diagnoses that can be affirmed or rejected according to each spectator's perception of the painting, a process amounting to little more than a Rorschach test, it would surely be more productive to examine the relationship between psychological aspects and the social function of portraits (or their genres).


Melozzo da Forli
Pope Sixtus IV appoints Platina as Prefect of the Vatican Library

Melozzo shows Pope Sixtus IV (1414-1484) in a quadratura hall of pillars, painted according to the rules of centralized perspective. The pope is shown in the company of his nepotes Giovannino and Giuliano della Rovere (who later became Pope Julius II), and two other courtiers (Girolamo and Rafaele Riario). Before him kneels Bartolommeo Sacchi, known as Platina, whom the pope is shown appointing to the position of Prefect of the Vatican Library.


Sitter and Setting


It is important to remember that portraits are always the products of composition. They are the result of an agreement between the artist and the sitter, between an aesthetic conditioned by the relatively autonomous precepts or traditions of the genre and the patron's individual requirements. Although relations between the artist and his patron might have been strained to the breaking point, they generally provided a framework in the form of a contractually underpinned consensus within which the patron - at least during the period we are considering here - was able to formulate his own wishes and thus go some way towards determining how his "imago" would be perceived. However conscious the use of psychology in a portrait might therefore be, to view its subject solely in characterological terms would be to expect the naive spontaneity of a fleeting, everyday scene from what is essentially an aesthetic construct.
The intended effect of a portrait was often revealed in its setting, which generally consisted of a spatial environment by means of which the sitter sought to define his role in society and to tell the spectator something about his interests, intentions and values. Backgrounds, whether landscapes or interiors, were compositional devices consisting of several different elements which would sometimes combine to form an integrated, atmospheric whole. These elements converted ideas into objects, into symbols representing types of social practice.

David Teniers the Younger
Archduke Leopold Wilhelm's Gallery at Brussels


Settings, however, were not merely symbolic ensembles, but referred the spectator to two main fields of worldly activity which were increasingly thought to be diametrically opposed. Landscape backgrounds thus often referred to the public sphere, much as the very notion of different landscapes (Ital. paesaggio, Fr. paysage) was for a long time associated with the division of land into jurisdictional and administrative territories, each representing a socio-political, cultural unity. This is well illustrated by the landscape backgrounds in Piero della Francesca's Montefeltro-diptych (Piero della Francesca Federigo da Montefeltro and his Wife Battista Sforza), which show us the territory ruled over by the sitters, the Duke of Urbino and his wife.

Piero della Francesca
Federigo da Montefeltro and his Wife Battista Sforza



The background of Luca Signorelli's so-called Lawyer (Luca Signorelli Middle-Aged Man) -showing a detail of an urban landscape, presumably intended as ancient Rome - consists of various ancient monuments and ruins, perhaps suggesting that the sitter was interested in archaeology. Beyond documenting what may possibly have been a contribution to the preservation of monuments - for he lived during, or shortly after, the era in which ancient Rome was restored under Pope Sixtus IV - the background may be a reference to the man's interests and humanist erudition, expressed by two scenes, probably taken from ancient history or mythology, painted at either side of his head.


Luca Signorelli
Middle-Aged Man


Background scenes often assumed the character of a so-called "impresa". This was a motto expressing a resolution or lifelong pledge. It might also be described as a personal emblem or badge (see Giovanni Battista Moroni Don Gabriel de la Cueva). The "impresa" first emerged as a medieval heraldic device at the Burgundian court, but its underlying principle was soon taken up by the ascendant bourgeoisie. It was not unusual for a sitter to use the device for purposes of identification with some figure in ancient history or mythology.
By the late fifteeenth century, the "impresa" had often become obscure and mysterious, sometimes presenting an insoluble riddle. Ideas inspired by the cabbala or by alchemy joined "hieroglyphic" symbols and pictorial cryptograms said to be based on the Alexandrian scholar Horapollo's (4th century A.D. ?) reading of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. The "hieroglyphica" were sometimes invented by the artists themselves, however.


Hans Holbein the Younger
Erasmus of Rotterdam


Besides the landscape, the interior (bare or furnished) was a second type of background by means of which the sitter might give symbolic expression to his norms and values. This may be seen in portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger (see Hans Holbein the Younger Georg Gisze, Erasmus of Rotterdam). The portraits of the merchant Gisze or humanist scholar Erasmus demonstrated a desire for privacy, a wish to withdraw from the public sphere. The sitters are nevertheless shown engaging in types of activity whose effect carried well beyond the private realm. Their desire to perfect their knowledge of the world is illustrated by the objects which surround them, instruments of technological progress and symbols of "modern" civilisation such as the telescope, the planisphere or the globe. Books symbolised the spread of knowledge and assumed a central position in portraits of Erasmus. Many symbols have nothing to do with knowledge, however, referring instead to the sitter's moral or ethical beliefs, or adhesion to certain notions of virtue. The latter played a particularly important role in early modern portraits of women. These portraits almost always showed married women, brides or fiancees, and occasionally courtesans. The objects surrounding them were allusions to certain qualities attributed to women, or expected of them by society. The settings of these portraits were therefore almost exclusively concerned with the social and artistic definition of the female gender role.


Hans Holbein the Younger
Erasmus of Rotterdam


The Functions of Portraits


Portraits painted between the fifteenth century and the end of the seventeenth century must be seen in connection with the advent and development of empiricism, a tendency which had been making itself felt in the arts since the late Middle Ages. Their execution therefore seems guided by an underlying rationalistic impulse, an impression reinforced by demands that they should be true to life and their subjects verifiable - criteria, in other words, derived from the practicalities of "rational" Roman Law. Paradoxically, however, portraits from this era still exhibit many magical or fetishistic characteristics. These were expressed in the "substitutive" or "vicarious" properties of the portrait, qualities which had been attributed to the likeness since the dawn of civilisation.


It had long been customary - and indeed remained so until well into the Age of Enlightenment - for likenesses of criminals who continued to elude the authorities' grasp to be "executed" in place of their real persons ("executio in effigie"). The law stipulated in such cases that the painting should be an accurate representation of the delinquent, and that the chastisement be applied symbolically to the picture as if to the parts of a real body. A similar phenomenon, based on ideas of sympathetic magic such as those sometimes witnessed in shamanism, was the scratching out of a portrait's eyes. The practice is found to this day, as evidenced by hoardings, often of a political nature, with figures whose eyes have been erased. At the time, however, the vicarious disfigurement of an enemy's or opponent's features was still widespread. Atavistic behaviour of this kind included the public display of likenesses of outlawed persons in order to proclaim their disgrace. These portraits usually caricatured their subjects and were designed to provoke the spectator's scorn and derision.
The examples cited above are almost all related to matters of jurisdiction or politics. Their attitude towards the person portrayed is dismissive, or negative, driven by the desire to punish or enact revenge. However, the talismanic or fetishistic quality of a portrait could equally express a positive attitude towards its subject.
An early eighteenth-century description of diplomatic protocol informs us that "the likeness of the Sovereign... is usually displayed in the form of a raised half-length portrait between the baldachin and chair of state in the audience chambers of his envoys. The painting represents the person as if he were actually there, for which reason those seated may not turn their backs towards him, nor may any person, ambassadors ex-cepted, leave his head covered when entering a room in which the likeness of a ruling potentate hangs" (1733).
This passage shows that one of the "vicarious" properties of the portrait was its "representative" function (which it has to this day). The purpose of most likenesses was the more or less frank demonstration of power, hegemony or prestige. This was of course equally true of the "executio in effigie", only here the purpose was to destroy the power held by the adversary.
Portraits of ruling princes were particularly candid demonstrations of the will to power. Among these, however, the equestrian portrait has a special place. Following the example of the equestrian sculpture of Marc Aurel (161-180 A.D.), the equestrian portrait was generally intended to awe the spectator into submission. Its use during the Renaissance and Baroque was not confined to demonstrations of pathos by feudal princes who wished to reinforce their claim to power. It is indicative of the resourcefulness of the ascendant bourgeoisie that parvenu-usurpers such as the mercenary commanders of the day - the condottieri - were capable of appropriating this means of displaying their power. However, since the power of their pockets was not always sufficient to afford a sculpture in stone or marble, some condottieri had to make do posthumously with the illusionistic - but nonetheless imposing - impression created by a commemorative fresco (Andrea del Castagno Monument of Niccolo da Tolentino).

Equestrian Statue of Marc Aurel
161-180 AD

Andrea del Castagno
Monument of Niccolo da Tolentino

Roman patrician carrying
busts of his ancestors
c. 30 BC


Counterfeits of humanist scholars, however subtle or discrete, were also displays of power and social prestige. Competing for status with the rich merchant class and nobility, they demonstrated with proud restraint the superiority of their erudition, spiritual values and ethical independence.
In general, therefore, it may be said that all portraits were intended to impress. They sought to command respect for the authority of the sitter, however extended or limited the scope of his influence might be.
"Commemoration" was a particularly important function of portraiture. Durer's well-known dictum on the ability of paintings to preserve the likeness of men after their deaths was an expression of faith in the magical victory of art over time, as if painting could overcome death. It is significant in this respect that the portrait itself is descended from the tomb effigy, or at least was originally associated with this art form. Examples of likenesses of deceased persons - usually members of the high clergy - in the form of reliefs or sculptures on altar tombs date from as early as the high or late Middle Ages: the tombstone of Archbishop Friedrich of Wettin (c. 1152) at Magdeburg cathedral, for example, or that of Siegfried III of Eppenstein (Mainz cathedral), shown crowning two reduced-scale kings.
Links between the portrait and the cult of the dead may be traced back to antique art. In Roman times wax masks were taken of the dead and kept in a shrine in the atrium of patrician villas. "These likenesses were taken for commemorative purposes and were not considered works of art. Owing to the ephemerality of wax, they probably did not keep longer than a few decades. The wish to recreate them in marble is therefore understandable, unfulfilled as it remained until early in the first century B.C. During this period the patricians saw their hegemony threatened. It is therefore possible that their desire to exhibit their ancestors publicly was combined with a need to reassert their claim to power."
These bust portraits, the "imagines maiorum", held here by the Roman patrician and usually carried at the head of public processions, evidently served as models for the sculptors of the quattrocento, as perhaps can be seen in Donatello's painted clay busts of Niccolo da Uzzano. Contemporary paintings attempted to imitate the plasticity of the bust portrait, the artist employing illusionistic devices, such as the application of realistic colouring, to make up for a lack of real plasticity.

Jacopo Pontormo
Lady in a Red Dress

This elegant lady, sitting with dignified, upright posture before a conche-like recess and absent-mindedly gazing towards the spectator, wears a vermilion dress whose large, bright, evenly-lit surface contrasts with the olive-green sheen of her sleeves. Her lap-dog symbolises conjugal fidelity. Her rosary signifies piousness.


The functions of the portrait mentioned above, together with their concomitant archetypical ideas, norms and expectations, may be seen as examples of mental structures whose emergence can be traced back to the early stages of civilisation. They had endured (in the sense of Fernand Braudel's "longue duree", or extended duration) the vicissitudes of time and the passing of several different types of societies.
Their universal character and usefulness as a frame of reference make it necessary to see the modern portrait in relation to these structures. Our purpose shall be to elucidate the specific historical significance, the purpose, allusiveness and relation to the history of ideas, of the symbolic forms manifested in various styles and subjects. Since all forms of aesthetic expression occur within specific cultural and social contexts, it is necessary to expose them to iconological analysis.


This book sets out to analyse some of the major works of early modern portraiture. The portraits themselves have been selected on the basis of their subjects' rank and profession (e.g. portraits of popes, princes or humanist scholars), or gender (portraits of women). The value of this method of selection is its proximity to both the painters' intentions and their patrons' requirements. While neither can be said to have considered the formal aspects of portraiture insignificant, they nonetheless saw them as the compositional means of reaching a pre-defined, figurative goal, although this, in turn, was conditioned by certain aesthetic expectations with specific historical roots.

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