by Roderick Conway Morris

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Huntingdon Library, San Marino
Portraits of a Man and Woman by Domenico Ghirlandaio, c.1490

Putting People in the Picture

By Roderick Conway Morris
AMSTERDAM 7 January 2022


'Painting possesses a truly divine power in that not only does it make the absent present, but also represents the dead to the living many centuries later,' wrote the Florentine architect and scholar Leon Battista Alberti in his book 'On Painting' of 1435. His words coincided with a revolution in portraiture, initiated in Flanders by Jan Van Eyck, whose astonishing 'Portrait of a Man', of 1433, almost certainly a self-portrait, is one of the treasures of the National Gallery in London.

What drove this revolution and how it developed during the Renaissance both north and south of the Alps is now the subject of a spectacular exhibition of over 100 of the finest examples of the genre, 'Remember Me: Portraits from Dürer to Sofonisba' at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, curated by Matthias Ubl, Sara van Dijk and Friso Lammertse. The show is accompanied by a revealing and beautifully illustrated book, 'Remember Me: Renaissance Portraits'.

Among the earliest medieval portraits, painted or carved in stone, are those of donors, shown kneeling in prayer at the base of the altarpieces they had financed in the hope this might ease their way through Purgatory in the life to come. The bust-length format that became standard in the early Renaissance had its origins in Byzantine icons and life-sized silver portrait-reliquaries containing the precious remains of saints.

The diptych format dated back to antiquity and was adopted by Christians for religious subjects, usually including images of Christ and the Virgin. During the 15th-century portraits of a donor at prayer were paired with images of Jesus and Mary, a format that may well have been invented by Jan Van Eyck and was adopted by many Netherlandish painters. In due course this diptych form was found ideal to create more secular portraits of husbands and wives, fathers, or mothers, and their heirs, siblings and even close friends.

In this period it was Netherlandish portraitists who were the principal innovators. The constant flow of trade between the great Flemish cities of Antwerp and Bruges and Italy, especially Florence and Venice, proved a mostly maritime highway for artistic influences. The three-quarter-angle view of the sitter's face and the placing of the hands in the foreground, giving the illusion that the subject partly projected beyond the surface of the picture, pioneered by Van Eyck, also became a hallmark of Hans Memling's paintings. The latter was as admired in Italy as he was in Flanders, but it was some time before the Netherlandish three-quarter-angle view was adopted by artists beyond the Alps.

Italian portrait painters remained wedded to the profile view, inspired by ancient reliefs and coins, until in the 1470s Antonello da Messina's brilliant likenesses encouraged his fellow painters, such as Giovanni Bellini, to embrace the more expressive possibilities of the three-quarter-view. But even then, there seems to have been resistance among traditionalists, as suggested by an extraordinary diptych of around 1490 by the Florentine Domenico Ghirlandaio, in which the man is shown from the three-quarter-angle and the woman in profile.

Memling was also the first to use the panoramic landscape view as a backdrop to his portraits. A classic case of this is his superb painting of the Venetian diplomat Bernardo Bembo, father of the famous humanist Pietro Bembo, painted when Bernardo was visiting Bruges in the early 1470s. Such landscape backdrops had an immense influence on Italian artists, not least among them Leonardo da Vinci (in, for example, the 'Mona Lisa'), Botticelli, Perugino, Raphael, Ghirlandaio and Giovanni Bellini.

Emperors, kings, queens, princes and the nobility harnessed portraiture to project their power, sometimes commissioning scores of copies of the same painted image. Artists and their patrons also embraced the possibilities for mass production offered by medals and prints. Royal portraits could be treated with a reverence previously reserved for religious icons. When Lucas Cranach the Elder was carrying a portrait of the Prince-Elector of Saxony across a courtyard, a passing courtier doffed his cap to it. And, after breakfast, the three-year-old crown-prince Louis XIII would solemnly bow before the portraits of his parents. Although, on one occasion, he declared his mother's likeness was only a picture and hurled his hat at it, the offending piece of headgear being confiscated as a punishment.

Artists strove in dynastic portraits to convey complex messages of their sitter's virtues and dignity. One such is of the Italian mercenary general and humanist Federico da Montefeltro and his son Guidobaldo. The presence of the infant heir is clearly intended to show the dukedom was secure (although in reality the line was to end with the childless Guidobaldo). Federico is shown in full armour (his income was entirely derived from his activities as a condottiere), wearing the Order of the Garter recently conferred on him by the English king Edward IV. Federico is reading a large codex and the artist has even indicated, through the reflection of the pillars in Federico's helmet, that his subject is sitting near the door of his famous library — his collection of illuminated codexes rivalled that of the Vatican and Europe's great universities — in his palace at Urbino, 'the fairest that was to bee found in all Italie', in the words of John Florio's 1561 translation of The Booke of the Courtier by Baldassare Castiglione.

The European aristocracy deplored the democratization of portraiture led by the rising burgher classes. The 16th-century Italian art critic and satirist Pietro Aretino (the upwardly mobile son of a cobbler) might declare: 'It is to your infamy, oh age, that you allow even tailors and butchers to appear alive in paint', but the cause had been lost long before in the burgeoning mercantile cities of Flanders.

Once again, Jan Van Eyck set a trend, in his portrait of 1436 of the goldsmith Jan de Leeuw holding one of his finely crafted rings. Such portraits displaying vocational attributes remained more popular in the north than beyond the Alps. However, as early as the 1480s Piero di Cosimo created an unusual Italian image for the period, featuring the architect Giuliano da Sangallo with his profession indicated by a set of compasses, which was transformed into a diptych with the addition of a posthumous portrait of his father, the architect and musician Francesco Giamberti.

Merchants of various kinds were among the first to be depicted with detailed vocational attributes in the form of pen and ink, letters, ledgers, scales and coins to be counted, but it is notable they are ensconced in their offices rather than amid the wares they traded in. Scholars, such as Erasmus, were similarly portrayed, in their studies, surrounded by their books.

By the late 15th century the likenesses of some humbler folk were being recorded by artists for posterity. In 1508 the great German artist Dürer made the first known sketch of an African man in western art. And a couple of decades later the Haarlem artist Jan Mostaert executed the earliest surviving painting of an African, possibly one Christophle le More, an archer in Charles V's bodyguard.

It is remarkable that the first known self-portrait of an artist at the easel is by a woman and bears the Latin inscription: 'I, Caterina de Hemessen, painted myself 1548/Aged 20'.

Less than a decade later, in Cremona near Milan, Sofonisba Anguissola painted her striking 'Self-portrait at the Easel'. Sofonisba was born into an aristocratic but somewhat impoverished Lombard family in around 1535. Her enlightened parents not only gave her and her five sisters the same humanist education as their only brother, but also arranged for her to go to live with a distinguished local painter, Bernadino Campi, and his wife, to complete her artistic education. Social constraints limited Sofonisba's ability to pursue her career as a religious painter but she revealed herself as highly inventive in her depiction of family scenes, such as 'The Chess Game'. Her drawings won the admiration of Michelangelo and her self-portraits became much in demand at the neighbouring courts in Parma, Mantua, Ferrara and beyond.

In 1559 Sofonisba was invited by Philip II of Spain to join his court. Her official position, in view of her social pedigree, was that of lady-in-waiting in the queen's entourage. But over the next 14 years Sofonisba forged a brilliant career as a court portraitist. As she never signed her works most of her portraits, despite her inimitable stylistic qualities, were subsequently attributed to other contemporary, male court artists. But the restitution of these works to her oeuvre in recent years has restored Sofonisba's reputation as one of the most significant portraitists of the age.

Before departing for Spain, Sofonisba displayed her playfulness in a wonderfully original jeu d'esprit: an affectionate picture (now at the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena) of her master Campi at his easel doing her portrait, which could be titled 'Sofonisba Painting Campi Painting Sofonisba'.

Remember Me: Portraits from Dürer to Sofonisba; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 1 October - 16 January 2022 (with period of closure due to Covid)

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023