Renaissance Portraiture

During the Renaissance, portraiture flourished as a manifestation of humanism. Thus it revived the ancient classical interest in human affairs and emphasised the development of the individual. During the 15th century in Italy the Florentine sculptor Donatello revived portrait sculpture in stone, a style that was continued by Desiderio da Settignano and others. Pisanello struck fine portrait medals.

Early Renaissance portrait painters of realistic murals and panels included Benozzo Gozzoli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli, Andrea Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini and Piero della Francesca. Celebrated masters of the High Renaissance, such as Leonardo, Raphael, Andrea del Sarto, Giorgione, and Titian, carried formal portraiture to new heights of refined perception and rich colour and light.

Portraits by Northern Renaissance painters show a preoccupation with realism and precise detail of physiognomy and costume. This approach is characteristic of panels by the Flemish masters Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, and Hans Memling and the drawings and paintings of the later Germans Albrecht Durer and Hans Holbein the Younger.

Mannerist portraits tended to exaggerate colour, proportion, light, or expression in reaction to the balanced classicism of the High Renaissance. They include works by Agnolo Bronzino and Tintoretto in Italy and highly personal interpretations by El Greco in Spain.

In the late Middle Ages realistic portraits appeared in works in which the identity of the subject was particularly important – tomb figures and donor portraits. An example of the latter is the portrait by Giotto (c.1305) of Enrico degli Scrovegni, donor of the Arena Chapel at Padua. Donor portraits, incorporated into religious scenes, were common in Italy for another 150 years, a period in which portraiture for  its own sake developed in the North.

The first great northern Renaissance portraitist was the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, who endowed his subjects with life and personality and introduced the  portrait as a secular art form to Europe. In the 15th century, Italian portraiture was influenced by this Flemish approach, which confirmed the realist tradition based on ancient sculpture, as in the portraits by Piero della Francesca of Frederico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza (1465), and in the Uffizi, Florence.


Piera della Francesca.  Frederico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza (1465).

The conflict between idealism and realism was characteristic of High Renaissance portraiture. Many of the great 16th century masters treated portraiture as a side-line, e.g., Raphael, or submerged individuality in atmospheric effects, e.g., Leonardo da Vinci, or ignored likeness altogether, e.g., Michelangelo. An alternate approach was practised by the Venetian painters led by Titian. Using a suggestive rather than a detailed technique, they achieved a dramatic  portrait style that became popular throughout Europe and influenced generations of artists.

Portraits were introduced into narrative compositions thereby figures from the past could be given the features of contemporaries. Vasari said that he could identify many portrait heads in 14th and 15th century narrative compositions. For example, Ghirlandaio filled his religious subjects with portraits of contemporaries, who intruded upon, rather than participated in the scene. Again, Hubert and Jan van Eyck may be two of the Just Judges in the Ghent Altarpiece. Jean Fouquet, in his Virgin and Child with Angels, portrayed according to tradition Agnes Sorel – La Belle Agnes – as the Virgin. A woman who was mistress to Charles VII of France.

Various pictures of beautiful women form another particularly difficult category  to distinguish between paintings that are portraits and those that are not. For example Titian’s La Bella is not a true portrait but rather a painting of a professional model. It was commissioned by Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino whose interest lay not in her identity but in her beauty. The model herself posed nude for Titian on a number of occasions – e.g., his Venus of Urbino, and Girl with a Fur.


Titian.  Venus of Urbino (1538)

Therefore, La Bella is not really a portrait but a fancy picture based on studies from life. Similarly with Giorgione’s picture Laura. It is taken as a portrait of a poetess ­part of a marriage betrothal diptych or idealised representaion of Petrarch’s Laura. Thus Giorgione’s Laura of 1506 may be a portrait of a lady in the guise of Laura ­Petrarch’s mistress. More likely it is a representaion as Giorgione imagined her, having made studies from a professional model.


Giorgione.  Portrait of a Woman – Laura (1506).

Again, Jan van Eyck’s Man in a Red Turban is probably the artist himself, with the lighting and clothes bringing attention to the face. Botticelli’s Young Man (1480’s) displays a reasonable proportion of the head to torso but exaggerates the sitter’s features.

Red Turban

Jan van Eyck.  Man in a Red turban (1433).

botticelli young man

Sandro Botticelli.  Young Man (1480-85).

A tendency to idealisation  explains why portraits by the same artist share a sort of family likeness. Therefore, idealisation means unsigned, undocumented portraits can be assigned to specific painters. Some artists could not abandon their idealised facial types. Also fashions in beauty played a part. The degree of idealisation is measurable when two approximately contemporary portraits of the same sitter exist by different artists. For example Nicolas Rolin the Chancellor of Burgundy – Jan van Eyck’s The Virgin of Autun of the late 1430’s and Rogier van der Weyden’s Nicolas Rolin of about 10 years later. Rogier’s is the reverse of an altarpiece, The Last Judgement at Beaune. The features in both portraits correspond fairly exactly – but where Jan van Eyck faithfully recorded Rogier van der Weyden imposed a stylised and hugely personal vision upon the subject.


Jan van Eyck.  The Virgin of Autun (late 1430’s).

Memlinc’s portrait of Maria Portinari may be compared with another likeness produced at the same time, the 1470’s, by Hugo van der Goes. Memlinc’s is from a half-length triptych and was painted for private use around 1470 when she was 14- to 15 years old. That by Hugo van der Goes is from the wing of a very large altarpiece for a Florentine church and dated 1477 to 1478 when she was in her early 20’s.


Memlinc.  Maria Portinari (c. 1470).

She now looks older, prematurely aged by constant child-bearing. In both portraits she is similarly dressed and wears the same intricate necklace. Memlinc uses a diffused  and flattering illumination whereas Van der Goes uses a stronger, more dramatic  lighting. Both artists referred to fashionable details of feminine beauty that they could interpret more directly in their images of female saints.

In 16th century Italy the enchantment of the theorists and artists with the Platonic idea  and with concepts of absolute beauty led to some confusion over the desirability of idealisation in portraits. According to Vasari, for example, Michelangelo “…abhorred drawing anything from life unless it was of the utmost beauty.” Indeed, Michelangelo executed only one portrait and that of his friend and patron Tommaso de’ Cavalieri. The enhancement of likeness inevitably idealises. However, characterisation shows the personality of the sitter. Their are two facets to characterisation – the expression of the sitter’s public identity and status, and the analysis of the private self. In certain portraits the sitters can be cast in the roles of gods, saints, and heroes. In other words – visual parallels. The personality being expressed by pose and facial expression. As Leonardo wrote “…painting considers the working of the mind as reflected in the movements of the body.”

Most facial expressions are fleeting. Giovanni Bellini’s portrait of Leonardo Loredan (probably painted after the sitter became Doje of Venice in 1501, is a static official image with the armless rigidity of a Roman bust. Whereas Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione shows  mobility of expression by contrasting sizes and shapes of eyebrows and eyes with catchlights in the pupils. Again, Holbein for example, individualised his sitters by exaggerating the assymetries of their features.


Giovanni Bellini.  Leonardo Loredan (1501).


Raphael. Portrait of Baldasarre Castiglione (1514-15).

Characterisation is taken to an unusual degree of penetration in two portraits by Quentin Metsys in the 1510’s. One of an unidentified man and the other of an unidentified woman. Thought of as an original pair they are now separated. The man nervously fingers his beads whilst looking up at his wife. The woman presents as an unassailable solidity and Metsys suggests she is an impervious, uncharitable and uncompromising individual. However, Rogier van der Weyden was not an objective portraitist. All his sitters are idealised in the same way, similarly posed and have similar expressions of noble piety. Whereas Metsys’s portraits are honest expressions of his sympathetic and critical reactions to his sitters.

Contemporaries disagreed on the value of portraits. In 1570 Catherine de’Medici said of her son – Charles IV of France – that “…no painter is good enough to represent him to our satisfaction.” The opposite view has Aretino writing a sonnet in 1537 in praise of Titian’s portrait of Eleonora Gonzaga, Duchess of Urbino (1493-­1550). In his Eleonora Gonzaga the sitter is the daughter of Gianfresco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, and Isabella d’Este. She married Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, in 1509. Titian’s portraits of the Duke and Duchess date from 1536 to 1538.

Portrait types – series

Almost all types of portrait of the 16th century were already being painted in the 15th century. Portrait series were of ruling princes, famous men, and were found in most parts of Europe. The Ypres Series comprised several portraits to which were added those of Philip the Bold, Duke of Brgundy and his wife Margaret of Flanders between 1390 and 1404. Broederlam added to the Courtrai Series in 1406. in the Low Countries genealogical portrait series became a common form of decoration. Nobility and gentry followed their rulers by commissioning series of ancestor portraits.

Various 15th century Italian sets of heads appear in family series and Church authorities commissioned ecclesiastical series. In a series of famous men persons of the remote past were placed alongside recently dead or still living celebrities. According to Vasari it was Giotto who painted such a series in Naples. Castagno painted 9 frescoes circa 1450 for the Villa Carducci outside Florence, and Justus of Ghent provided 28 panels, circa 1475, for the Studiolo of the Ducal Palace at Urbino. Mantegna’s frescoes in the Camera Picta at the palace in Mantua (1474-75) show Ludovico Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, his family, courtiers and guests ­which included Emperor Frederick III, Christian I King of Denmark. Of narrative interest rather than an actual assembly.

Group portraits

These occurred in some dynastic series. In Italy mural paintings often served as substitutes for tapestries (e.g., Burgundian). An example of a dynastic mural is the Pavia Castle series (1469) for Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan. Another example is by Francesco del Cossa – the Borso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara and his Courtiers which is part of the Month of March fresco (painted circa 1470) at the Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara. Again, Justus of Ghent painted, circa 1480 and now in Hampton Court, his Frederico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, his son Guidobaldo and others listening to a discourse. It records the intellectual pleasures of life at the court of Urbino, though perhaps not a specific event. Mural cycles also include Giotto’s fresco Pope Boniface VIII Proclaiming the Jubilee of 1300. A mixture of court activities and actual events. Similarly his now lost John II of France Receiving a Diptych from Pope Clement VI.

Masaccio’s lost fresco of the Consecration of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence took place in 1422. It included many portraits including some of whom were not present at the ceremony. Therefore, like scenes of court life, narrative paintings were easily falsified. They thus included portraits of people whom patrons thought should have been there. By the year 1500 half-length group portraits were popular throughout Europe and full-length double portraits were more frequent than believed. For example Jan van Eyck’s Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife (1434).


Jan van Eyck.  The Arnolfini Marriage (1434).

Another example is Hans Memlinc’s An Old Man and and Old Lady of circa 1480 and now sawn in two. Half-length double portraits were produced in Germany, Italy, and the Low Countries by the mid-15th century.

Single portraits

Full-length potraits of persons standing, seated or lying, or mounted on horses occur throughout the period. For example Botticelli’s frescoes representing Lorenzo Tornabuoni and his Wife, which include various allegorical figures. Now in the Louvre but originally in a villa near Florence. An equestrian example is Titian’s Charles V on Horseback and painted at Augsburg in 1548. The picture represents a combination of northern and classical prototypes and set the standard for subsequent development of equestrian portraits.

An example of the below the waist portrait is Leonardo’s Lady with a Ferret painted at Milan between 1485 and 1490. [Note the below the waist pose of the Mona Lisa of 1503-1506]. The sitter is identified as Cecilia Gallerami the mistress of Lodovico it Moro, Duke of Milan.

Lady with a ferret

Leonardo da Vinci.  Lady with a Ferret (1485-90).

Similarly Raphael’s Pope Julius II – 1511-1512. Giulio della Rovere (1443-1513) was elected Pope in 1503 and the portrait was presented to the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome. According to Vasari it was “…so wonderfully life-like and true that it inspired fear as if it were alive.” The portrait is an example of the seated to the knees composition.


Raphael.  Pope Julius II (1511-1512).

Again, another seated to below the knees by Raphael is his Joanna of Aragon of 1518. The sitter was Joanna of Aragon (1500-1577) the grand-daughter of Ferdinand I of Naples. She was betrothed in 1518 to Ascanio Colonna, the Constable of Naples. She was celebrated for her supreme beauty and intellectual accomplishments. The portrait was commissioned by Cardinal Bibbienna as a gift for Francis I of France. The picture was reputedly painted from a cartoon prepared by a pupil – there being no evidence Raphael ever saw Joanna the sitter.

joanna of aragon

Raphael.  Joanna of Aragon (1518).


In the Netherlands painted fictive frames and parapets were rarely employed. They were more popular in Italy where some preferred stepped parapets. A parapet or ledge was often used to support an arm. An example being by Titian in his The Man with a Blue Sleeve of 1511-1512, and thought to be the artist himself. A parapet used by a northern artist was often to carry an inscription.


Andrea del Sarto.  Man with a Blue Sleeve (1511-12).

Thus Jan van Eyck’s Leal Sovennir of 1432. The sitter may already be dead and the portrait possibly painted to resemble an ancient Roman tombstone. Again, Rogier van der Weyden painted his Lady in 1435 to 1440. Here the sitter rests folded hands on an unseen ledge or horizontal surface.

Leal sovvenir

Jan van Eyck.  Leal Sovvenir (1432).

Similarly Titian in his La Schiavona of 1511 shows a parapet with a relief giving a profile of the sitters head. An unidentified woman who rests her hands on what is an example of a stepped parapet. An example of using a frame as a parapet on which to rest hands is that by Raphael in his unidentified sitter entitled La Muta of circa 1507. The use of a table, or part of a table, gave a horizontal accent to the composition. An example is by Titian in his Frederico Gonzaga painted circa 1529. Frederico Gonzaga (1500-1540), and one of Titian’s most important patrons, was the son of Isabella d’Este. A visible chair of a seated subject enabled the arms of the chair to be used to cut the figure. This is seen in Andrea del Sarto’s Young Man painted in the late 1510’s. The unidentified sitter holds a book in his hands.

Profiled portraits maintained popularity in Italy until about 1500 when they rapidly fell out of favour. Most 14th century northern portraits were not profiles which were exceptional after 1420. For example Pisan&Ids Ginevra d’Este – a lady of Lionello d’Este’s (1407-1450) family and painted in the 1430’s. A full three-quarter view is shown by Antonello da Messina in his Condottiere of 1475. A fanciful title for an unidentified sitter and painted during his Venetian stay and showing Netherlandish  influence. The face does show forceful determination. Three-quarter views are also seen in the Master of Flemalle (Robert Campin) portrait pair of 1430 – Portrait of a Man and Portrait of a Lady. Man and wife they are simply dressed and not of elevated status. The varied lighting has allowed stress of physical bulk and enables emphasis of contrasts between facial expressions.

Rogier van der Weyden had problems compressing sitters hands together at the lower edges of portraits. For example his Lady of circa 1464. The unidentified sitter presents with a geometric composition.

Lady 1435

Rogier van der Weyden.  Lady (1434)

Gestures in portraits can have meaning, especially of affirmation or insistence, and some add a becoming touch with the hand held near the chest or face. An example is Raphael’s portrait of Bindo Altoviti, circa 1515. The sitters pose was also affected by choice of background which related the sitter more securely to the background rather than the frame. Curtains  could serve as frames. Often flat areas of one colour were used as a background ­easy to paint and the cheapest to commission. Expensive interiors are admirably shown in Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Marriage.

In Florence, Fra Filippo Lippi’s idea of displaying a sitter against an elaborately carved window frame opening onto a distant landscape may have been inspired by Netherlandish pictures. His Lady is dated around 1440 to 1450 and shows an unidentified sitter in profile. The idea was taken up by Botticelli who sometimes placed his sitters between two windows – e.g., his portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici exploits the pose against an open doorway into another room.

medici botticelli

Sandro Botticelli. Giuliano de Medici (after 1478).

The generalised rendering of the face suggests the portrait was done after Giuliano’s murder in 1478 at the age of 25.


Antonello de Messina.  St Jerome in his Study.

Again, many objects within a composition held symbolic significance, for example Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage or Antonello de Messina’s St Jerome in his Study.

The Sitters, Patrons, and Painters

The sitter and patron were often the same person or the patron’s wife or family member – a market for the beautiful, the heroic, the important, or the famous. It was easier to paint the beautiful or the handsome rather than the dowdy or insignificant. When a portrait was commissioned the artist and patron must normally agree on size, appearance, and price. Formal contracts were rare. Price depended on size, detail, costume, background and accessories. Some artists used a sliding-scale to agree a price for a commission according to its complexity.

The  patron held the ultimate sanction of withholding payment. In a position therefore to exercise complete control over the painter and many did indeed dictate to artists. For example Felipe II of Spain complained of Titian’s haste in painting his portrait wearing armour – perhaps fearing a reduction in quality.

Most painters exoected to, were prepared to, execute portraits. Some specialised. Few Low Countries artists specialised. Mantegna was not thought a good portraitist by the Marquis of Mantua, and was similarly criticised by Isabella d’este. Also speed in execution and early completion was a desirable quality. Pisanello was criticised for taking 6 months to paint his portraiot of Lionello d’Este.

Portrait method

By the second half of the 15th century recognisable portraits were being produced. Portraits were expected to be extremely accurate likenesses. Emperor Charles V was not happy with one of Titain’s posthumous portraits of the Empress. It was in 1517 that Erasmus commissioned his portrait from Quentin Metsys as a gift for Sir Thomas More. After Erasmus had foolishly taken some purgative pills he complained to Metsys his appearance had altered and after further suspension and delays the picture finally arrived. Some portraits were actually painted from meticulous drawings. Jan van Eyck’s portrait of Cardinal Albergati – painted in 1438 – was preceded by meticulous silverpoint drawings.


Jan van Eyck.  Cardinal Albergheti (1438).

Similarly, Jean Fouquet’s picture of Guillaume Jouvenel des Ursins – circa towards 1460 – was done from a drawing of black and coloured chalks  on grey paper.


Jean Fouquet. Guillaume Jouvenal des Ursins (c. 1460).

Painting from life was far from unknown. Some portrait heads were executed separately and then glued to the panel. This was the case with Tomasso Portinari and his Sons Antonio and Pigello presented by Saints Anthony and Thomas by Hugo van der Goes. Painted after 1477 as the left wing of his Portinari Altarpiece.


Hugo van der Goes.  Saints Antony and Thomas (c. 1477).

At a much later date Titian painted his portrait of Ranuccio Farnese (1542) which was admired “…especially since he executed it partly in the presence of the sitter and partly in his absence.” according to the catalogue of the National Gallery, Washington. Posthumous portraits might be executed from corpses. For example Ghirlandaio prepared preliminary drawings of a dead man for his Old Man and Child of circa 1490. The portrait, whose preliminary drawings show a turned down mouth and closed eyes of a corpse, exhibit in the painting a stylisation and modification. The nose is portrayed with clinical exactitude – the condition rhinophyma (nodular congestion and enlargement of the nose) is quite apparent.

The functions of portraits

The basic function was commemorative. Durer saw in portraiture one of the principal purposes of art because it “…preserves the likenesses of men after their deaths.. Durer immortalised Erasmus in an engraving in 1526. Some portraits were mementos of loved ones. Raphael painted his Baldassare Castiglione in 1514-1515 when the sitter was in Rome as the Duke of Urbino’s ambassador. Castiglione wrote a sonnet imagining his wife separated from him with the companionship of his portrait. Leonardo wrote that “…the painter…can place the true image of the beloved before the lover, who often kisses it and speaks to it.”

Italy and the North

We have been conditioned to look at Renaissance works of art with the eyes of a 16th century Florentine. The ideals and values of Vasari and his contemporaries have been accepted with suprising readiness by succeeding generations. Italian Renaissance theorists were led by their infatuation with the pursuit of ideal beauty to take a patronising attitude to portraiture. In the 15th century, many Italians clearly took an intense interest in northern art. French and Netherlandish portraits were reaching Italy in fair numbers.

In the 1470’s Federico da Montefeltro employed at Urbino the Netherlander Justus of Ghent and who painted portraits there. During the same decade Antonello da Messina was in Venice where he would have helped familiarise the Venetians with his knowledge of portraits and oil painting from the Low Countries. Rogier van der Weyden’s lost triptych Descent from the Cross was at Ferrara by 1449. In the 1450’s a triptych by Jan van Eyck of the Annunciation was at Naples. The Portinari Triptych by Van der Goes arrived in Florence in 1483.


Rogier van der Weyden.  Descent from the Cross (1449).

It is an oversimplification to say that every Italian three-quarter view portrait was due to Netherlandish influence. Two of the earliest surviving three-quarter Italian portraits are Castagno’s Portrait of a Man (circa 1450) and Mantegna’s Cardinal Ludovico Trevisan of circa 1460. They had probably seen Netherlandish portraits similar to Rogier van der Weyden’s 1449 work Antoine, the ‘Grand Batard’ of Burgundy. The sitter was one of the numerous illegitimate offspring of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. By the end of the century it can be seen that some Italian  painters were imitating specific Netherlandish portraits. For example Perugino’s Self Portrait of 1482 is based on a Memlinc portrait seen in Florence.


Perugino.  Self-portrait (1482).

The composition and landscape of Perugino’s Francesco delle Opere (1494) is very close to Memlinc to suggest Perugino followed another of Memlinc’s portraits. In Raphael’s early portraits borrowings from Netherlandish art may be found. For example in his portrait Pope Julius he adapted the composition of Pope Sixtus IV by Justus of Ghent His portrait of Pope Leo X with Two Cardinals clearly follows the tradition of Fouquet’s lost portrait Pope Eugenius IV with two of his familiars ­Raphael would have seen these at Rome.


The Roman  portrait bust survived in the form of life-sized reliquaries of saints, but it was in 15th century Florence that the individual features and character of a contemporary sitter were accurately recorded by sculptors such as Donatello, Desiderio da Settignano, Mino da Fiesole and Rossellino. A similar degree of realism occurs in 15th century tomb sculpture.

The equestrian portrait, based on antique statues such as Marcus Aurelius Rome, Campidoglio, was revived in the 14th century. An example in fresco is the posthumous portrait of Sir John Hawkwood by Uccello in Florence Cathedral – this gives the 3-dimensional illusion of a statue seen from below. The Venetian Republic ordered an imposing monument from Donatello – the 1447 Gattamelata in Padua. Also the 1479 Colleoni monument by Verrocchio in Venice itself. Another form of political portraiture derived from antiquity was the commemorative portrait medal  designed by artists such as Pisanello.

The carved or painted profile portrait became popular in the 1450’s. The realism of the clear, flattened image, painted under the influence of Flemish  examples by the Pollalolo brothers, Piero della Francesca and Botticelli, was superceded by the three-quarter and frontal portrait. These were psychologically more complex such as Leonardo’s enigmatic Mona Lisa with her momentary smile, or Andrea del Sarto’s arresting Portrait of a Man. The 16th century portrait became generalised – Lorenzo Lotto’s Andrea Odoni of 1527 being an idealised concept of a collector rather than an individual.

Group portraits, decorating whole rooms, include the narrative scenes of the Gonzaga court painted by Mantegna for the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua and completed in 1474, and the elaborate scenes commissioned by the Farnese family in Rome from Vasari for the Palazzo della Cancellaria in Rome, and completed in 1546. Portraits were also incorporated into religious narratives, such as Ghirlandaio’s fresco cycle painted for Giovanni Tornabuoni in Santa Maria Novella, Florence between 1486 and 1490.

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