|Fra Filippo Lippi:"Portrait of a Woman with a Man at the Casement"|
The earliest Renaissance portraits were not paintings in their own right but rather important inclusions in pictures of Christian subjects. In medieval art, donors were frequently portrayed in the altarpieces or wall paintings that they commissioned, and in the fifteenth century painters began to depict such donors with distinctive features presumably studied from life. An example is Robert Campin’s Merode altarpiece (56.70) of about 1425, in which the man and woman in the left wing have the specificity characteristic of portraiture. Hans Memling’s portraits of Tommaso and Maria Portinari (14.40.626-27), painted around 1470, were also probably meant to flank the image of a saint in a small triptych, yet each likeness fills a whole panel and has the emphasis of a portrait in its own right.
ShareOne of the hallmarks of European portraiture is a sense of reality, an apparent intention to depict the unique appearance of a particular person. Each portrait is thus meant to express individual identity, but as Erwin Panofsky recognized, it also “seeks to bring out whatever the sitter has in common with the rest of humanity” (quoted in Shearer West, Portraiture [Oxford, 2004], p. 24). This second aspect of portraiture comes across in the considerable conservatism of the genre: most portraits produced in Renaissance and Baroque Europe follow one of a very small range of conventional formats. The profile view, which was favored in ancient coins, was frequently adopted in the fifteenth century, for instance, in Fra Filippo Lippi’s picture of a woman at a window, with a young man peeking in (89.15.19). The three-quarter face, which allows for greater engagement between sitter and viewer, was also widely favored. Petrus Christus used this format in his portrait of a Carthusian monk (49.7.19), which places the sitter in a simply characterized interior, with a horizontal element like a windowsill at the bottom and a glow of light in the left background. Italian painters at the turn of the sixteenth century embraced and refined this formula. Leonardo da Vinci’s celebrated portrait of Mona Lisa (ca. 1503–5; Musée du Louvre, Paris), for instance, increases the sense of connection between sitter and viewer by placing the hands on the window ledge; the enigmatic smile departs from the perfect composure seen elsewhere. Raphael’s widely imitated portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (ca. 1514; Louvre) uses the half-length format seen in the Mona Lisa but tightens the focus on the sitter by highlighting his lively face against a softly lit gray backdrop. (Read more.)