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To See Ourselves

The Renaissance portrait as a mirror of society.

Feb 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 23 • By JAMES GARDNER
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Before 1400, portraiture was almost unheard of: An eminent exception is Giotto’s depiction of his friend Dante Alighieri in the Bargello, from the first quarter of the 14th century. Beyond that, for the next hundred years, you would be hard put to find a single work of art that faithfully registered the specific data of a given human face. Only in the second quarter of the Quattrocento did things begin to change. Whereas the sculptors of this period were guided in some measure by the ancient examples that were starting to be dug up from the earth, painters were forced to invent the entire genre of portraiture out of nothing more than their own imaginations and improvised skills—as well as a rumor or two that survived in the writings of the elder Pliny.

Compared with the portraits of a later age, those on view here at the Met tend to be fairly small and portable works on wood panel. For the first half of the period covered in this show, the sitter is depicted in profile, a choice that emphasizes line and so tends to abstract the sitter and stress status over personality. One of the earliest of these portraits, Pisanello’s depiction of Leonello d’Este, is marked by fussy floral adornments that surround him as in a medieval tapestry. A similar composition, though in a far different key, informs Piero and Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s depictions of fair women rising up in profile against a peerless blue sky. Not only are these images more naturalistic: They feel more open and rational and there is a physicality to them that is very new in Western art.

Toward the end of the century, Domenico Ghirlandaio endows his sitters, in profile, with an exquisite precision of detail that has never been surpassed. Surely he is a famous painter, but this exhibition proves that he deserves to be more highly esteemed than he has been in recent years. An unsurpassed example of his skill is the deeply felt and deeply moving depiction of an old man and his grandson from the Louvre. While the child appears in profile, reaching his hand up to the old man, the latter is posed in three-quarter view to reveal a nose swollen and disfigured by rhinophyma.

There is a sense of human warmth in this painting that, it must be said, is at variance with the general ambitions of Ghirlandaio, elsewhere in his oeuvre, or with those of other great painters included in this exhibition, among them Andrea Mantegna, Cosmè Tura, and Jacopo Bellini, all of whom united some measure of verisimilitude with an almost abstracted love of visual effect for its own sake. Only toward the end of the century, in Ghirlandaio’s portrait of the old man and his grandson, and in Raphael’s fully frontal “Portrait of a Man” from about 1504, does the sitter’s personality begin to assert itself over the claims of status or the demands of artifice.

In the 16th century, though the aristocracy continued to immortalize itself through portraits, the option of commissioning one of them had come within reach of the merchants and lesser magistrates who constituted the primordial middle class. As for the portraits of the humbler segments of society, with some notable exceptions by Rembrandt and Frans Hals, they would have to wait until the Impressionists of the 19th century and Alice Neel, within living memory.

James Gardner recently translated Vida’s Christiad (I Tatti Renaissance Library).

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