Art of Portraiture – Middle Ages to Restoration England

Rembrandt-The Jewish Bride-1

Henry III (1207 – 1272) was the first English monarch to be crowned while still a child.

Tomb effigies in England, in particular those at Westminster Abbey, are among the finest of all medieval portraits, especially the image of Henry III (1207 – 1272). He was the son and successor of John as King of England and reigned for fifty-six years. His contemporaries knew him as Henry of Winchester. He started re-building Westminster Abbey in the new Gothic style in 1245 in honour of the Royal Saint Edward the Confessor, whose relics lie in a burial vault beneath themosaic pavement in front of the High Altar, which he had laid down in 1268.

When a ruler died he was carried in procession, his face exposed, proving his death and the right of his successor to reign. So long as the funeral took place immediately there was no difficulty, but as these burial rites grew more complicated there was a delay, the coffin closed and a funeral effigy was used. Names of sculptors are rare from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and few are known.

Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart…Marcus Aurelius

Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius

The combination of men and horses has a long artistic history, the mounted rider appearing often.

This tradition was embodied in the powerful equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180) erected in 176 AD in the Piazza di Campidoglio at Rome.

Despite having moved around over the centuries it survived and owes its preservation to the fact that throughout the Middle Ages Christians believed it represented Constantine, who had declared the Roman Empire was Christian in 330.

It was treasured so much that in 1538 Michelangelo was commissioned to design a new pedestal for it.

When Marcus Aurelius became Emperor the Pax Romana, the great peace of Rome,  brought about by Augustus had lasted for 200 years. However on his accession it virtually came to an end.

Marcus Aurelius is depicted without weapons or armor as in life although a warrior constantly engaged in war, he saw himself as a peacemaker. This single statue has, over a long period of time, had a profound affect on portrait sculpture.

Many cities throughout the western world have an equestrian portrait of a famous personage modeled right up to, and including the early part of the twentieth century.

The original is today on display in the Palazzo dei Conservatori having been replaced by a replica made in 1898 when the original was taken down for restoration.

Giovanna degli Albizzi by Ghirlandaio

Portraiture as a genre evolved rapidly following its long dormancy, with the advent of the new ideas about Humanism.

Painting is a language of expression with its own grammar and vocabulary and during the fourteenth century objects were given a third dimension.

Through an arbitrary arrangement of light, shade and color, artists now sought to make three-dimensional objects melt into the ambient atmosphere, infusing one with the other, until the whole became a single pictorial effect.

In the fifteenth century individuals were independently portrayed and in 1486-90 Domenico Ghirlandaio (1448 – 1494) depicted Giovanna degli Albizzi in a fresco in S. Maria Novella in Florence, looking on at the visitation. She appears again in the same pose, dress and coiffure, in a panel belonging to the Baron Thyssen.

A great beauty, she died young and her family more than likely wanted her portrait in their home, commissioning Ghirlandaio to provide them with a replica, based on his fresco. Both mural and fresco show her in profile, and in the fifteenth century a majority of portraits of women are silhouetted in this manner.

Albrecht Durer Self Portrait as a young man

Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) was a German painter and engraver born in Nuremberg, the son of a Goldsmith from Hungary. For Albrecht Durer direct observation was the path to truth.

During his youth he was apprenticed to Michael Wolgemut, chief illustrator of the Nuremburg Chronicle.

When he was 18 he decided to travel for four years to broaden his experiences not returning until 1493 to set up shop, as it were, as a painter and printmaker.

He attracted the patronage of Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony and later of the Emperor Maximilian, as well as many of the patrician merchants of Nuremberg.

Albrech Durer Self Portrait Christ like overtones

He is best known for his woodcut designs for engraving and considered the artist of ‘everyman’. His engravings were used to illustrate books for numerous printing presses and display a virtuoso technical skill not seen until his time and rarely since.

His early self-portraits are a statement of wealth and status relaying to the viewer that he was obviously pleased with his personal appearance. He wore textiles and accessories that proclaimed his monetary and social success distancing him entirely from the view for that of a ‘poor artist’. His success was in two mediums.

Graphic artist first and foremost, which gave him monetary success and wide recognition, and then not satisfied with his immediate fame in that field he went on to establish himself as a painter and colourist.

In his self portrait, painted in 1500, he has made himself in the conventional likeness of Christ. This perhaps reveals a characteristic insensitivity, although we would have to say it is a marvelous portrait. His eyes seem to bore into the spectator as though to Xray his brain.

Durer visited Venice in 1505 and was anxious to learn from the Italians particularly those aspects of art, which could be systemized advancing his knowledge of perspective along the way.

He became the intimate friend of humanists scholars, including the Dutch scholar Erasmus. He recognized the visual arts needed a theoretical base in science and his theoretical treatises on perspective, architecture and human anatomy, as well as his natural history studies rival those of the best scholars of the High Renaissance.

He was one of the first artists to leave behind a series of paintings of himself and they are a great insight into the man. More than thirty painted portraits are attributed to Durer and many more portrait drawings.

Andrea del Castagno’s Portrait of a Man is a power filled statement that irradiates change. He appears a man very much in charge of his own destiny. But is he approachable?

Castagno posed his sitter in a hard, clear light, modeling all the separate planes of his face and garment with the sharp clarity of a relief in bronze.

The difference between the sculptural mode of Castagno and the pictorial mode of Leonardo da Vinci marks the difference between the Early and High Renaissance, and is one of the most significant stylistic changes in the history of painting.

This was when a basic transformation took place and painting went from a linear or relief like style to become a painterly depiction, one in which light and shade merge imperceptibly and the contours are gently softened to unify both the figure and its ambient atmosphere.

Hans Holbein the Younger (1491-1547) came to England bearing a passport from his intimate friend, perhaps the greatest and most articulate of the northern humanist scholars, Erasmus to England’s saint in the making, Thomas More.

His interest was with intellectual portraits; expounded by the artist ‘in natural form expressing the concept of his mind or idea’.

This ideal approach meant that only those people considered worthy of recording should be portrayed.  ‘Holbein, wrote diarist John Evelyn to his contemporary Samuel Pepys in 1689, really painted to the life beyond any man this day living’.

George Gisze 1532 by Hans Holbein the Younger

He achieved a purity of style that leaves the sitter to tell you his own story, with a clarity that is a distillation of truth.

Painted in 1532 not long after Holbein arrived in England his portrait of George Gisze is a virtuoso showpiece of the portraitist’s art.

The young merchant, George Gisze  has a Latin inscription on the wall behind him certifying the portrait’s accuracy. “Distich on the Likeness of George Gisze. What you see is Georg’s countenance and counterfeit; so bold in his eye, and thus his cheeks are formed. In his thirty fourth year of Our Lord 1532′”

There is a sensitivity about George that is very appealing, and the character revealed while, on the surface is likeable and approachable, leaves us thinking he may be something more. It is a direct contrast to Castagno’s Portrait of a Man, who seems in many ways grim, determined and unswerving in his resolve or a pathway to follow and also out of reach.

The merchant Gisze is depicted with the hallmarks of his trade: money, keys, pen, inkpot, boxes etc and his sophistication, at a young age is suggested by the presence of the very fashionable Turkey Rug draped over the table on which he works as well as the quality and cut of the costume he wears.

However on closer examination the shapes within the work, the desk, wall, shelves are optical illusive and the motto “Nulla sine merore voluptas” (no pleasure without regret) is perhaps a credo meant to be kept in check by the presence of the balancing scales.

French Ambassadors by Holbein the Younger

For centuries courts communicated with each other through diplomatic representatives, but it became a practice during the Renaissance to establish resident ambassadors.

These men of learning were instrumental in spreading the ideas and classical developments in art and philosophy. The ambassadors depicted in Holbein’s painting are Jean de Dinteville, French Ambassador to England and Georges de Selve, French ambassador to the Imperial Court.

In setting the stage for the ambassadors he included symbols of music (a lute, a bag of flutes) of science (globes, a sundial, a quadrant and a polyhedron – solid four sided figure) for himself he depicted them standing behind an anamorphic projection of a skull.

He wants us to know his sitters were cultured, sophisticated men and communicate his own knowledge by placing the ambassadors and the skull along two axes perpendicular to each other.

In this way Holbein forces the viewer to be placed in a position where they must stand either to the right hand side of the painting to view the skull, which then becomes clear while the ambassadors retreat and become emaciated. If the viewer stands right in front of it he can only accept what the eye can see from that viewpoint.

Up until this time linear perspective demanded that everyone viewing a painting should stand in one place, its centre and look at it full on. However because the Ambassadors must be looked at from two viewpoints this very clever ruse of Holbein’s is most successful in forcing us to know the ambassadors represented not only their own country, but also a second viewpoint,  the one they were living in as guests.

Being an ambassador was at this time still a very dangerous occupation. If they didn’t balance viewpoints when talking to everyone at court it could mean disaster and death.  Taking a pragmatic view meant you remained alive.

From this portrait would you believe these men would die to advance their country’s point of view?

In the end it is not the sitter, but the viewer who is forced to make a choice about what viewpoint to consider the work from.  If he views it from both angles does he accept that his choice metaphorically parallels life and that all decisions made, whether ambassadorial, professional or personal need to consider another’s viewpoints.

As viewers we are left to work out if the portrait is a moral statement about how the few must always consider the needs of many. After Holbein’s death in the plague of 1543 painters and sitters in England became more subject to precedent and fashion.

In Florence a transformation was taking place brought about by Leonardo da Vinci who recommended that grace, softness; cloudy and misty types of lighting would lead to an indistinct gradation in the modeling.

Leonardo da Vinci wanted to introduce psychological portraiture and paint the ‘motions of the mind’ including sadness, a mood that artists of his time rarely depicted. After Leonardo painting was never the same again and his influence was widespread.

He ensured that forever after artists would be aligned with creative intellectualism. He departed radically from convention and tradition to depict his subject, Cecilia Gallerani, mistress of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. In his painting entitled the Lady with an Ermine he portrays her in three quarter view, her body twisted to glance at something beyond the confinement of a frame and beyond perhaps the reality of her life?

She is a thoroughly modern miss who is gently, affectionately holding a pet ermine, whose fur had always been harvested and worn by rulers and monarchs to indicate their purity and moderation.

Scholars muse that perhaps it is meant to be a pun on the Duke, who had been awarded the Order of the Ermine, a medieval chivalric order of which we know very little. Leonardo’s realism was inspirational and became metaphorically a baton (or paintbrush) that was passed to artists like Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt and their followers.

Rembrandt-The Jewish Bride-1

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Jewish Bride, Museum Het Rembrandthuis

One of Rembrandt Van Rijn’s greatest portraits was painted in 1667 and is called The Jewish Bride. It depicts a couple not in their first youth, or beautiful in any classic sense, but are infinitely moving in their expression.

We know at once they are in love by their facial expressions and body language.  Each is giving love and receiving it. Their love is like the gold chain around her neck. It is binding them together as they surrender to each other because love means we have to make choices.

From our perspective they really do not need to look into each other’s eyes, rather they both seem to be pondering the meaning of total commitment and it is a moving experience.

This is a portrait of great reverence and an attitude of tender humility. It is all about the deepest form of respect, a serious desire to recognize one another as important in their own right.

Self Portrait Peter Paul Rubens with his wife, Helena Fourment and their son Peter Paul

Peter Paul Rubens grew up in Antwerp and journeyed to Italy at the age of 23 where he remained for eight years. He copied the works of Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, Correggio, Titian and Tintoretto, learning to render form and compose on a large scale.

Educated in languages he moved about graciously and easily in social and court circles in Spain, Italy, France and England and was both the star and darling of society.

He became one of the most respected painters of his time considered by many scholars to be one of the greats.

Portrait painting was only one of his disciplines, and in the case of his family amounted to about a quarter of all his portraits.

These were very perceptive, whether of Isabella Brant, his first wife or the more robust Helene Fourment whom he married after his first wife died. His self- portrait with Helena and their son Peter Paul, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, affords us as voyeuristic glimpse of their married life.

The aging painter’s tenderness is evident, her absorption and wonder as she looks down at their young son, still on leading strings, makes it a touching symbol of family love and unity.

His humanity is evident, with age it seems his ability to grasp values of sympathy and affection and record them on canvas, grew.

No other painter equals his fluidity and the rhythmic phrasing of the brush stroke, all visible in the joyous rendering of childhood and maternity, and the effect is quite glorious.

Charles 1 by Anthony Van Dyck

Flemish painter Anthony Van Dyke was a protégé of Rubens. He visited England at the height of his powers and Van Dyke was greeted royally, given a knighthood, pension, gold chain and the lease of a house at Blackfriars.

With him he brought to England the grand manner of the Italian Baroque style. His ability to capture national character means that his English portraits are decidedly English and could not have really been painted anywhere else in the world at the time.

To what extent did he idealize his subjects? Most scholars feel a great deal. Young men in his portraits are always attractive, women always look beautiful, and they never look really old.

Portrait Charles 1 Locket CM

Portrait of Charles 1 in an Edwardian locket, drawn in ink on ivory, a 17th century period piece cut from a larger piece, it must have meant something to the owner in the early twentieth century.

Doubtless he endeavoured to flatter his wealthy patrons and he certainly painted Charles I many times and in many different poses. All our concepts of this scholarly patron of the arts appearance are formed by the sheer volume of Van Dyke’s likenesses of him.

Perhaps we can read into the Van Dyke three angles portrait of Charles I, the pathos of a society blind to the possibility of defeat and unconscious of the catastrophe that lay ahead.

It was not only about revealing all sides of the enigmatic ruler, but also sent to Rome so the most famous of sculptors of that time, Gian Lorenzo Bernini could complete a bust of him commissioned by the Pope. Sadly the bust was lost in the fire of 1698 that reduced the palace of Whitehall in London to ashes.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011-2013

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