The Magazine

It Takes a Visage

The rebirth of learning in the art of portraiture.

Dec 14, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 13 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Yet Raphael shows that the man who goaded Bramante, Raphael, and Michelangelo into remaking Rome into what Jacob Burckhardt called "the Classical City of the World .  .  . and the Papacy [into] the pioneer of civilization" was not incapable of introspection. With his downcast gaze and air of being at once a million miles away and imprisoned in his pontifical setting, Julius does indeed seem, as the curators describe him, "a man too preoccupied to perform for the artist for whom he is sitting." No pontiff had ever been shown in so human a light.

An equally revealing portrait is that of Queen Mary of England (1554), the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, by the Netherlandish painter Antonis Mor, which was commissioned by Mary's Spanish husband Philip II in the year of their ill-fated marriage. When still a young woman, Mary refused to swear the Oath of Supremacy, rejecting her father's claim to be head of the English Church, an act of extra-ordinary courage, considering that such defiance cost Thomas More and many others their lives. Withstanding years of court intrigue, she ascended the throne in 1553, after the death of Edward VI, reconciled England to Roman Catholicism in 1555, and died three years later at the age of 42.

The curators point out how, "when Philip would not return to England, [Mary] vented her rages on his portraits. On one occasion she was reported to have kicked a portrait of Philip from her privy chamber, on another, to have scratched at his portraits in her chamber." In the portrait here, the look of cold impatient contempt that she turns to painter and viewer alike is arresting. (Could she have been annoyed by the painter's reformed religion?) Her regal glower confirms the impression left by a Venetian ambassador that her "eyes are so piercing as to command not only respect but awe from those on whom she casts them." Equally arresting is the fact that she scarcely sits on her red and gold upholstered throne, which is shown at a precarious diagonal. Instead, her tense, menacing figure seems merely to shadow it. And to the left of her, beyond the immediate setting, a brooding darkness awaits.

Altogether, the portrait is a study in unease and uncertainty, made all the more poignant by the fact that when Mary sat for the painting she was convinced (delusively) that she was pregnant. Of course, she produced no heir; and yet at the very center of the portrait Mor pointedly positions a reliquary set with a Jerusalem cross of diamonds, hanging from Mary's girdle, surrounded by figures of the four Evangelists. For Mary, alone on a throne that she could hardly hold, the only stable thing in her otherwise unstable life was her faith. Philip, for his part, detested the painting. As the curators point out, the English portraits of the queen are much more flattering. Yet in refusing to idealize his subject, Mor got at something deeply true about Mary and her predicament.

These are portraits of well-known figures. But just as engaging are portraits of unknowns. For example, there is Ghirlandaio's Portrait of a Lady (ca. 1490), which shows a young woman before a walled city in an idyllic countryside complete with winding roads, a river, cypress trees, and blue mountains. As the curators note, everything about the young woman seems to exemplify the "grave demeanour and self-restraint" that Leon Battista Alberti, the great Renaissance architect, painter, poet, musician, and philosopher, commended in respectable brides; and yet at the bottom left of the painting the subject's fingers are shown carelessly holding, or perhaps letting go, an orange blossom, symbol of chastity. This sweet-faced, blonde, Botticellian woman looks beyond the viewer, intent on keeping her own counsel, but those fingers have a mind of their own.

In stark contrast, there is a joint portrait by Jan Gossaert called An Elderly Couple (1520), showing an old man and his wife, looking respectively exasperated and resigned--a Flemish Darby and Joan. The young woman in Ghirlandaio's painting would never begin to fathom the regrets that exercise these two venerable souls.
Gossaert concedes as much by showing two sprightly nudes in a badge the old man wears in his cap, proof of the immeasurable divide between youth and age. If one purpose of portraits was to commemorate the living, another was to disillusion the dying.