Renaissance art: face values

Renaissance art: face values

Martin Gayford

A new exhibition of Renaissance portraits reveals how, for the first time, the human face came alive in art. By Martin Gayford

In the summer of 1521 Albrecht Dürer was travelling in the Low Countries. Just as he was leaving Antwerp on July 2, he received a message from King Christian II of Denmark, who was in town. The monarch asked Dürer to draw his portrait, which he did, in charcoal. Afterwards, Christian asked the artist to dine with him. Dürer noted in his diary, “he behaved graciously towards me”. Dürer’s drawing of the king still exists, and will be included in the exhibition Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian which opens on October 15 at the National Gallery in London.

That little story tells us two things. One is that the artist-superstar, companion of the rich and powerful, is not a modern phenomenon. It dates back at least five centuries. The other point is the importance that portraiture had at the height of the Renaissance. Even a king seized the opportunity to be drawn by a great artist.

Portraiture mattered then, and pictures of people from that era are still prominent now. The most celebrated painting in the world – perhaps the best known single image in existence – is a Renaissance portrait: the Mona Lisa. The exhibition is likely to draw crowds to the National Gallery. So the question arises: why are we so interested in depictions of men and women, dead for centuries, whose identities we often do not know?

In 15th-century European art there was a revolutionary improvement in verisimilitude. David Hockney has suggested that artists such as Van Eyck were influenced by optical images produced by lenses. Whether or not you agree with that hypothesis, it is undeniable that there was a sudden increase in precision of focus, texture and detail. It is immediately evident in a picture such as Van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man of 1433.

On that little oak panel, almost 600 years later we can still see the stubble of the sitter’s beard, the fine wrinkles, the gleam of his eye. Of course, this improvement in surface realism applied to everything – still life, landscape, textiles. But the human face is, of all the objects in the world, the one in which we are programmed to take the most interest. Constantly we scan the features of those around us for clues and cues – hostile or friendly, happy or sad, what sort of life do they lead?

Fifteenth-century Europe was not the first epoch to produce realistic portraiture. Vivid representations of individuals survive from ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt. But there is a huge increase in the sheer volume of surviving portraits from the Renaissance, and in the range of sitters they represent.

There are pictures of the young and the old, the beautiful and also the remarkably ugly, such as the old man painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio, his nose covered in bulbous growths, so touchingly embracing his grandson. Naturally, there are plenty of paintings of the rich and powerful, but also of the relatively humble; people such as Perjerón, a Spanish court buffoon presented with dignity by Antonis Mor in 1559-61. Pietro Aretino, a scurrilous polemical writer, went so far as to complain in 1555 that “even tailors and vintners are given life by painters” – and indeed a tailor painted by Moroni, shears in hand, is included in the show.

The portrait explosion, as the exhibition emphasises, was a Europe-wide phenomenon. The mesmerising evocation of surfaces and textures – the lustre of velvet, the glistening of skin – was a northern speciality. It originated in Van Eyck’s Netherlands, but his style was by no means realistic in other ways. For example, he habitually made his sitters’ heads much too big in relation to their bodies.

There was also an Italian contribution: greater anatomical accuracy derived from classical sculpture. The two currents, northern surfaces and southern structure, came together in a painting such as Giovanni Bellini’s Doge Leonardo Loredan (1501-04). The Venetian ruler has the gravitas of a Roman emperor, but his silk mantle, its gold and silver threads catching the light, creates an illusion of reality that is still astonishing.

The new portrait idiom was the product of cultural cross-fertilisation. Bellini was a Venetian painter influenced by Flemish techniques; Dürer and Holbein were German artists affected by the art of Italy. It was such an attractive invention that it spread across the continent, stirring in a Danish king the desire to be painted by Dürer, and luring Holbein to distant, backward London. In the latter’s later paintings and drawings, for the first time in history, English faces suddenly appear – looking much as they still do now.

All of these Renaissance portraits were painted because the sitters in some way mattered. Some were celebrated people in their day. But most were of husbands and wives, friends, relations, and prospective brides and grooms. The last were important because in an era of arranged marriage an accurate portrait might be the only way to find out what your intended spouse looked like before it was too late to change your mind.

Five centuries later, the sitter’s identity is less crucial. The Van Eyck Portrait of a Man may well be a self-portrait, but even if it isn’t, it is still an enthralling picture. The cliché about the Renaissance used to be that it was the period that saw the rise of the individual. Whatever the truth of that, it was definitely the age that first depicted humanity in specific detail and on a massive scale. And of course, we are unquestionably in an age of individuality today, obsessed by faces and celebrities. Looking at the portraits of Renaissance men and women, we see ourselves.

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