Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck To Titian At The National Gallery

By Tara Booth | 15 October 2008
An image of a woman's head and shoulders

W170, Circle of Desiderio da Settignano (about 1430–1464) Saint Constance, called ‘The Beautiful Florentine’, about 1450–75. Musée du Louvre, Paris (RF 789) © RMN, Paris. Photo René-Gabriel Ojéda

Exhibition Review: Tara Booth takes a look at some of the finest portraits of the 15th and 16th centuries in Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian, which is running at London’s National Gallery until January 18 2009.

Sitting in a glass case in the first room of the National Gallery's new exhibition of Renaissance portraits, the wooden busk of Saint Constance 'The Beautiful Florentine' loaned from The Louvre in Paris, is the starting point of a fascinating journey through the 15th and 16th centuries.

The sculptured portrait, discovered with two cavities in the head that possibly contained the Saint’s relics, proposes an idealised and virtuous impression of female beauty, a theme common in Renaissance portraiture.

An image of two men facing eachother

© Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (SK-C-1368 with SK-C-1367)

(Above) W097_W098 (framed together) Piero di Cosimo, Giuliano and Francesco Giamberti da Sangallo, architect and musician, about 1485

In Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian, organised by the National Gallery, London and the Museo Nacional del Prado, Spain, a selection of over 70 portraiture paintings stand alongside sculptures, drawings and medals in celebration.

But how did portraiture come to play such a central part in our lives? While it’s a method of documenting a person’s physical appearance, wealth or a specific moment in time, it was also a way to commemorate the dead.

Portraits were once believed to contain a divine force, a part of the sitter’s soul, prompting surviving relatives to pray, releasing the dead from purgatory. Others believed they provided a magical meeting between the sitter and the viewer, making the dead seem more alive.

An image of a woman wearing a white headress and a red jacket

W061, Jan van Eyck (active 1422; died 1441) Margaret, the Artist’s Wife, 1439. Groeningemuseum, Bruges (0000.GRO0162.I) KMSKA. © Lukas - Art in Flanders VZW

The exhibition explores the dramatic rise in portraiture in the Renaissance and brings together visual gems on loan from the UK, Europe and North America.

Some paintings in the exhibition are reunited after 100’s of years spent apart, as with Jan Van Eyck’s self portrait which sits adjacent to Margaret, The Painter’s Wife. While for other paintings such as Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s extravagant portrait of The Emperor Rudolph II As Vertumnus, it’s their first time on display in the UK.

an image of two men standing next to a table with lots of items on. In the forefront, there is a distorted image of a skull.

Holbein the Younger, Hans Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’), 1533. © The National Gallery, London

“Many people think of Italy when it comes to the Renaissance. But this collection looks at northern and southern Europe,” explains lead curator Susan Foiste. “It ranges widely to Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Germany.”

Accordingly the exhibition features masterpieces by, among others, Raphael, Botticelli, Holbein, Dürer, Pontormo and Bellini and exudes a sense of wealth and exclusivity.

The gallery has a thematic presentation with seven rooms progressing in chronological order from early 1400 to 1560. Each is then divided into themes allowing visitors to compare and contrast paintings with works by other artists.

An image of a man's head and chest, made from fruit and vegetables

W059 Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527?–1593) The Emperor Rudolph II as Vertumnus, about 1590. © Skoklosters Castle (11615). Photo Samuel Uhrdin

Arcimboldo’s portrait of The Emperor Rudolph II, King of Bohemia in Austria, presented as Vertumnus, god of the seasons, wins over many pairs of eyes. It’s a striking piece, if a little bizarre. Formed from a variety of adroitly arranged fruit and vegetables with a sash of flowers, it’s an unorthodox representation of the Emperor’s reign depicted as natural and harmonious.

In the same space, Holbein’s The Ambassadors features Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve standing proud among a plethora of belongings. As many visitors the National Gallery will know, a distorted image of a skull becomes evident if viewed from the right hand side and a crucifix in the top left corner is just visible.

It’s an interesting piece, juxtaposing the idea of status with the inclusion of wealth and belongings with the clever cryptic clues of Christianity and mortality.

An image of a woman with a hat. She is also holding a rosebud next to her chest.

W010 Quinten Massys, An Old Woman (‘The Ugly Duchess’), about 1513. © The National Gallery, London. 1947 (NG 5769)

In terms of beauty and love, the line between real and ideal is often blurred. But in Quinten Masseys’s The Ugly Duchess, neighbouring his other painting of An Old Man, caricature is used presenting a somewhat satirical sense in a room otherwise dominated by idealised beauty.

The sitter appears to be suffering from Pagets disease, a malformation of bone structure, and with the wrinkled breasts and the rosebud between her fingers, it seems to suggest she is being satirised as a personification of lust.

An image of a marble relief with a man and a woman with curly hair. The man has leaves in his hair and the woman wears a hairnet.

(Above) W115 Tullio Lombardo (about 1460–1532) A Young Couple (Bacchus and Ariadne), 1505–10. © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (KK 7471)

On the other side of the room stands the opposite. A beautiful marble relief by Tullio Lombardo of a young couple’s reunion reflected in the passion of the god Bacchus for Ariadne, glows under spotlight, radiating a sense of passion and devotion.

Portraits of children in a family setting were often portrayed during the Renaissance, such as Lorenzo Lotto’s Portrait of Giovanni della Volta with his Wife and Children. It’s a symmetrical piece depicting the family bond with an element of playfulness.

Portraits of families were mainly used to emphasise the importance of ensuring the continuity of ruling dynasties and this room provides a fine selection of familial-based portraits and sculptures.

A family portrait of a woman and a man looking towards the camera with a young girl sitting on the table with her hand in a bowl and a young boy with his arms in the air.

© The National Gallery, London (NG 1047)

(Above) W174 Lorenzo Lotto (about 1480–1556/7) Portrait of Giovanni della Volta with his Wife and Children, 1547.

In the final room, featuring portraits of rulers, the epitome of grandeur is depicted in a full-length bronze sculpture of Leone and Pompeo Leoni’s Philip II. Standing proud on a plinth before royal red velvet curtains, it serves as a powerful end to a grand exhibition.

Renaissance Faces provides a rare opportunity to explore an exceptional selection of portraits borne of the 15th to 16th centuries. It’s a great way for visitors to embrace the fascinating roots of portraiture, its progression over the years and to see beyond the faces into the Renaissance mind.

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