The Great Age of the Portrait
The portraits presented in this book are selected exclusively
from works executed between the late Middle Ages and the seventeenth
century. There are good reasons for limiting study to this period,
for it was then that portraiture came into its own. It was this era
that witnessed the revival and genuine renewal of the individualised,
"au vif" depiction of privileged or highly esteemed persons, a genre
largely neglected since Classical antiquity. From the fifteenth
century onwards, not only princes, the high clergy and noblemen, but
members of other social groups - merchants, craftsmen, bankers,
humanist scholars and artists - sat for their portraits, keeping
themselves, quite literally, in the public eye.
The period also saw the development of various portrait types,
sub-genres which determined the forms taken by portraits in the
following centuries. Examples of these are the "full-length
portrait", usually reserved for ruling princes or members of the
nobility (Titian Emperor Charles V), the "three-quarter-length portrait"
(Giovanni Battista Moroni Don Gabriel de la Cueva) and the many different kinds of "head-and-shoulder
portrait", the most frequently occurring portrait type, with its
various angles at which the sitter posed in relation to the
spectator. Typical poses included the "profile view" (Pisanello
Young Lady of the Este Family)
with its dignified, hieratic air reminiscent of Classical antiquity,
the "three-quarters view", the "half-length" and the frontal, or
"full-face view", with its often highly suggestive form of "direct
Emperor Charles V
Full-length portraits were usually reserved for rulers and the
Titian's portrait of Charles V in a silver brocade coat,
based on an earlier model by the
Austrain painter Jacob Seisenegger,
is an excellent example.
Giovanni Battista Moroni
Don Gabriel de la Cueva
Young Lady of the Este Family
Besides the "individual portrait", whose function was the depiction
of public figures who wished to demonstrate their social standing as
autonomous individuals (see Hans Holbein's Georg Gisze), the "group portrait" continued during this period to
be cultivated as an artistic institution.1 Such portraits served as
status symbols for corporate bodies such as guilds or other
professional societies and trade associations, while at the same
time defining the various roles and hierarchies within the groups
themselves. Similarly, portraits of married couples and family
portraits allowed the basic social units of the early modern state
to project an image of themselves that was, in the main, consistent
with the mores and conventions of their age.
It remains a source of continual astonishment that so infinitely
complex a genre should develop in so brief a space of time, indeed
within only a few decades of the fifteenth century, especially in
view of the constraints imposed upon it by the individual
requirements of its patrons. Its complexity is revealed in its
rhetorical gesture, in its vast vocabulary of physical postures and
facial expressions and in the range of emblems and other attributes
characterising the sitters and symbolising their spheres of
Hans Holbein the Younger
This merchant from Danzig was visiting London when his portrait
The Latin inscription on the paper on his office wall
certifies the portrait's accuracy:
"Distich on the likeness of Georg
Gisze. What you see is Georg's countenance and counterfeit;
is his eye, and thus his checks are formed.
In his thirtv-fourth
vear of Our Lord 1532."
While the earliest works of this period, by early Netherlandish
portraitists (see, for example, Jan van Eyck "Leal
appear to have concentrated exclusively, and with almost microscopic
attention to detail, on the rendering of external reality, rejecting
psychology altogether, the portraits painted towards the end of the
fifteenth century focused increasingly on inward states, on the
evocation of atmosphere and the portrayal of mental and moral
attitudes. The tendency to psychologise went so far that it
eventually provoked a retreat from the open expression of thoughts
or feelings. The sitter no longer revealed himself as an open book
but turned to a mysterious, inward world from which the spectator
was more or less excluded.
There are cultural and historical correlations between the portraits
executed in the late Middle Ages and early modern era and the idea
of human dignity so emphatically championed by Renaissance
philosophy. In his tract "De dignitate hominis", for example, Pico
della Mirandola's creator-god, described as a "demiurge" (a skilled
worker), has this to say of human destiny: "O Adam, we have not
given you a certain abode, nor decided on any one particular face
for you, nor have we provided you with any particular single
ability, for you shall choose whatever dwelling-place pleases you,
whatever features you consider becoming, whatever abilities you
desire. All other beings are limited by natural laws that we have
established. But no boundary shall impede your progress. You shall
decide, even over Nature herself, according to your own free will,
for in your hand have I laid your fate."
Jan van Eyck
"Leal Souvenir" ("Tymotheos")
Solemn diction cannot conceal a belief expressed in this passage in
the autonomy of the individual. This notion lent metaphysical
significance to the self-regard of a bourgeoisie whose confidence
was already heightened by technical and economic progress, as well
as by new opportunities accompanying geographical expansion and
social mobility. But in providing an appropriately symbolic form for
this view of the world, the portrait fulfilled a function that 'was
appreciated by other ruling strata in society as well, especially by
those with absolute power.
The most respected non-aristocratic groups in societv were the clergy,
scholars and merchants.
They paid considerable attention to their public
Here is an example of the bust portrait usually commissioned by
Even when the bourgeoisie had become more solidly established,
images of individuality evolved during the "heroic era" of
portraiture continued to dominate the genre and to guide its
exponents. Against the background of changed historical
circumstances, however, the use of the portrait to symbolise rank
and power inevitably led to derivative or anachronistic forms and to
a dubious kind of pathos (as in the portraits of Franz von Lenbach
during the second half of the nineteenth century). Still officially
cultivated in the nineteenth century, portrait-painting was
"certainly not on its death-bed, but (...) far more rarely practised
than it used to be", as Jakob Burckhardt put it in 1885. The growth
of photography, a medium capable of faster, easier and more faithful
reproduction, seemed to confirm the obsolete nature of the painted
portrait with its time-consuming sittings and laborious sketches.
Furthermore, the new technique was considerably cheaper.
Only art movements which opposed the academies of the late
nineteenth century - the various Realist, Impressionist and
Naturalist secessions -achieved innovations that broke with the
self-aggrandizing manner, as it now appeared, of an increasingly
"nouveau riche" clientele. The few expressive portraits of the
twentieth century have come from artists associated with openly
figurative movements, or from those who have viewed the critique of
society as an integral part of their work. For obvious reasons, the
non-figurative avant-garde radically rejected portraiture. It is
therefore hardly surprising that an artist as well-disposed to
abstraction as Don Judd, one of the most prominent Minimal artists,
should declare: "Unfortunately, art tends to become a likeness, but
that's not really what it is."
Portrait - Counterfeit - Likeness
Leonardo Loredan, Doge of Venice
Bellini's portrait of the Venetian Doge, Leonardo Loredan
is reminiscent of bust portraits by 15th-century
whose style had developed from the medieval
Loredan was doge from 1501-1521.
commander-in-chief he led Venice through a period of crisis
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
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."
An Artist Drawing a Seated Man
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
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.
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.
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
Jan Van Eyck
Cardinal Nicola Albergati
Jan Van Eyck
Cardinal Nicola Albergati
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.
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
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.
King John the Good
"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.
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.
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
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."
Man (alias "Ariosto")
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).