A journey through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition on Renaissance Portraiture from Donatello to Bellini.
The exhibition covers the time period from 1425 to the early 1500’s with media ranging from painting to sculpture and coins. Until the 15th century portraits of non-rulers were rare, thereafter rich middle class patrons were able to commission their own works marking a new production age in art. Its main development was the growing knowledge of three dimensionality and a direct gaze from the subject in the portrait.
The exhibition’s curator, Keith Christiansen, highlights the innovation of sculpture which was then followed by painters. Donatello’s glistening sculpture of Saint Rossore (1425) greets and prepares the visitor for what follows. The imposing piece gives a great sense of individuality marking an important trend in Renaissance art. The great tactility of the hair is then brought to great heights by Boticelli’s beautiful Ideal Portrait of a Lady (1485). Boticelli’s lady goes beyond the Renaissance ideal toward naturalism and achieves a supernatural effect. Quite like models in Vogue, “the images are more fantastic than realistic” as Ken Johnson from The New York Times encapsulates.
This is then greatly contrasted with Ghirlandaio’s Old Man and a Boy (1490). Beauty is no longer the ideal in this powerful portrait. Emotion champions over the superficial in this affectionate relationship between a disfigured grandfather and his grandson. There are still parallels to Botticelli in the the flowing curls of the young boy. The power of this portrait comes from the contrast between the two figures in age and beauty.
There is a sense of puzzlement when walking through the exhibition. Portraits were created to commemorate the living and remember the dead however most of the subjects and their stories remain largely unknown to us. This is the case with Fra Fillipo Lippi’s Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement 1440. We do not know who the woman was or her relationship to the man. However this does not detract from the exhibition because it allows the viewer’s imagination to reign free.
This is then juxtaposed by the Portrait of Federigo il Gonzaga (1510) by Francesco Francia. The young boy was taken hostage by the Pope to ensure his father’s political compliance. This portrait was made as a personal keepsake for his mother to soothe her in his absence. The painting’s rich context adds an emotional facet.
Included in the gallery was a small sketch by Leonardo da Vinci. While this is not nearly as impressive as other works the viewer is instantly reminded of his contribution to Renaissance portraiture via the Mona Lisa. This sketch adds further depth to the exhibition by allowing the viewer to see a portrait in an earlier stage of preparation.
The exhibition reminds us that the Renaissance was not simply a search for beauty and naturalism – deformity and supernaturalism also played a part. The 160 works in this exhibition allow the viewer to explore Renaissance portraiture and is a must see for those in New York until March 18th.
“Painting possesses a truly divine power in that not only does it make the absent present…but it also represents the dead to the living many centuries later, so that they are recognized by spectators with pleasure and deep admiration for the artist.”
Leon Battista Alberti
George Flickinger & Olympia Severis
Image 1 – Blakegopnik
Image 2 – Wikipaintings
Image 3 – Wikipedia
Image 4 – Wikimedia Commons