Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Portraiture in Renaissance and Baroque Europe

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A portrait is typically defined as a representation of a specific individual, such as the artist might meet in life. A portrait does not merely record someone's features, however, but says something about who he or she is, offering a vivid sense of a real person's presence.


The traditions of portraiture in the West extend back to antiquity and particularly to ancient Greece and Rome, where lifelike depictions of distinguished men and women appeared in sculpture and on coins. After many centuries in which generic representation had been the norm, distinctive portrait likenesses began to reappear in Europe in the fifteenth century. This change reflected a new growth of interest in everyday life and individual identity as well as a revival of Greco-Roman custom. The resurgence of portraiture was thus a significant manifestation of the Renaissance in Europe.


A portrait does not merely record someone's features, however, but says something about who he or she is, offering a vivid sense of a real person's presence.

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The earliest Renaissance portraits were not paintings in their own right but rather important inclusions in pictures of Christian subjects. In medieval art, donors were frequently portrayed in the altarpieces or wall paintings that they commissioned, and in the fifteenth century painters began to depict such donors with distinctive features presumably studied from life. An example is Robert Campin's Merode altarpiece (56.70) of about 1425, in which the man and woman in the left wing have the specificity characteristic of portraiture. Hans Memling's portraits of Tommaso and Maria Portinari (14.40.626-27), painted around 1470, were also probably meant to flank the image of a saint in a small triptych, yet each likeness fills a whole panel and has the emphasis of a portrait in its own right.


One of the hallmarks of European portraiture is a sense of reality, an apparent intention to depict the unique appearance of a particular person. Each portrait is thus meant to express individual identity, but as Erwin Panofsky recognized, it also "seeks to bring out whatever the sitter has in common with the rest of humanity" (quoted in Shearer West, Portraiture [Oxford, 2004], p. 24). This second aspect of portraiture comes across in the considerable conservatism of the genre: most portraits produced in Renaissance and Baroque Europe follow one of a very small range of conventional formats. The profile view, which was favored in ancient coins, was frequently adopted in the fifteenth century, for instance, in Fra Filippo Lippi's picture of a woman at a window, with a young man peeking in (89.15.19). The three-quarter face, which allows for greater engagement between sitter and viewer, was also widely favored. Petrus Christus used this format in his portrait of a Carthusian monk (49.7.19), which places the sitter in a simply characterized interior, with a horizontal element like a windowsill at the bottom and a glow of light in the left background. Italian painters at the turn of the sixteenth century embraced and refined this formula. Leonardo da Vinci's celebrated portrait of Mona Lisa (ca. 1503–5; Musée du Louvre, Paris), for instance, increases the sense of connection between sitter and viewer by placing the hands on the window ledge; the enigmatic smile departs from the perfect composure seen elsewhere. Raphael's widely imitated portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (ca. 1514; Louvre) uses the half-length format seen in the Mona Lisa but tightens the focus on the sitter by highlighting his lively face against a softly lit gray backdrop.


Mannerist artists adjusted these conventions to produce works like Bronzino's portrait of a young man (29.100.16) painted in the 1530s: the figure again appears half-length, but the expression is aloof rather than serene, curious pieces of furniture replace the barrier along the lower border, and the hands—the right fingering the pages of a book and the left fixed on the hip—suggest momentary action and bravado rather than quiet dignity. The hand in the book confers an air of learned nonchalance on sitters both like and unlike Bronzino's fashionable young man: it occurs, for instance, in Titian's sensitive portrait of the aged archbishop Filippo Archinto, painted in the 1550s (14.40.650). The hand on hip frequently appears in portraits of rulers or would-be rulers, as in van Dyck's splendid likeness of James Stuart, painted around 1635 (89.15.16). The full-length format, always a costly and grandiose option, increases the sitter's air of power and self-possession. Even greater magnificence is implicit in equestrian portraits, which also had Greco-Roman associations and were much favored in Renaissance and Baroque courts (52.125).


The conventional aspects of portraiture ensure that each example will bear some resemblance to the next, and yet this general similarity makes the distinctive qualities of each one the more salient. Sometimes the sitter's beauty or demeanor is emphasized, as in Nicholas Hilliard's miniature portrait of a young man (35.89.4) with luxuriant curls and a straightforward gaze. In other examples, a magnificent costume highlights the sitter's wealth and fashionable taste (51.194.1). Other portraits suggest a sitter's profession or interests by including possessions and attributes that characterize him as, for example, a humanist author (19.73.120), an accomplished sculptor (46.31), or an impassioned preacher (65.117). In addition to these rather public aspects of identity, portraits may also suggest the sitter's inner psychology or state of mind. Hints of personality are especially evident in seventeenth-century portrayals of less exalted persons, such as Rembrandt's portrait of the craftsman Herman Doomer (29.100.1), Velázquez's picture of his assistant Juan de Pareja (1971.86), and Rubens' seductive likeness of a woman who may have been his sister-in-law (1976.218).


In addition to recording appearances, portraits served a variety of social and practical functions in Renaissance and Baroque Europe. Miniatures were given as gifts of intimate remembrance, while portraits of rulers asserted their majesty in places from which they were absent. In courtly settings, portraits often had diplomatic significance. For instance, Jan van Eyck traveled to make portraits (now lost) of potential wives for his patron, Philip the Good of Burgundy, and Girolamo della Robbia made a ceramic portrait of Francis I (41.100.245) to adorn the residence of one of his comrades in arms. A portrait was often commissioned at a significant moment in someone's life, such as betrothal, marriage, or elevation to an office. The making of a portrait typically involved a simple arrangement between artist and patron, but artists also worked on their own initiative, particularly when portraying friends and family (18.72; 1981.238; 1994.7). These portraits sometimes display a sense of affection, informality, or experimentation unusual in commissioned works. Finally, artists captured their own likenesses in self-portraits (49.7.25; 14.40.618), where they freely pursued their own ends, whether to claim elevated status, to showcase technical mastery, or to seek frank self-reflection.

Jean Sorabella
Independent Scholar