Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo's 'Ginevra de' Benci' and Renaissance Portraits of Women
National Gallery of Art/Princeton University Press, 236 pp., $55.00; $35.00 (paper)
National Gallery of Art, 320 pp., $65.00; $35.00 (paper)
The Art of the Motorcycle
The Guggenheim Las Vegas, 447 pp., $65.00; $45.00 (paper)
Masterpieces and Master Collectors
212 pp., $55.00; $35.00 (paper)
The two admirable shows currently at the National Gallery in Washington present works of art which, highly regarded though they might be today, were once held in even greater esteem. The landscapes of Aelbert Cuyp were admired and collected in the centuries after his death, until Holland was denuded of them. Treasured in English country houses, exhibited in London, they spoke directly and forcibly to painters of the nineteenth century, such as Constable and Turner. They were among the supreme representatives of their genre.
The portraits of women that have sur- vived from the Italian Renaissance were so eagerly sought after in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that, as David Alan Brown tells us in the saner part of his catalog, whereas early Italian paintings in general remain scattered around the world, “almost all the female profiles found their way north of the Alps”—that is, into German, English, and subsequently American collec- tions. They were so highly prized, these profile portraits of women, that many fakes were produced in order to meet demand. Where a genuine portrait existed it was often attributed to a prestigious artist, and attached to the name of an equally prestigious sitter. By the time the great American collectors were fighting over the examples that remained (not all that many do remain), the prices had become very high indeed. Arabella Huntington paid $579,334.43 in 1913 for a pair of portraits attributed to Domenico Ghirlandaio.
Much later, in 1967, when the National Gallery acquired its portrait by Leonardo da Vinci of Ginevra de’ Benci (a portrait in the frontal mode, with something of the northern look of a Petrus Christus), it paid the highest price yet paid for a painting. It is around this work that the exhibition is organized, offering a small number of works of the very highest quality for intelligently chosen comparison. How the organizers persuaded both the Bargello and the Frick to lend their Verrocchio busts would be interesting to know. At a time when, in the wake of September 11, people are wondering whether such loan exhibitions can possibly continue, one felt a singular privilege in being able to view such a show.
What caught the imagination particu- larly, in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth, was the way Italian paintings celebrated women as individuals. Writing in 1860, Jacob Burckhardt—this is how Brown tells the story—“generalized from a few exceptional figures like Isabella d’Este or Vittoria Colonna” to exalt the women of the Renaissance. Burckhardt believed that in this period “women stood on a footing of perfect equality with men” and that “the educated woman, no less than the man, strove naturally after a characteristic and complete individuality.” In fact Burckhardt makes it clear that he is talking about high society, as a little fuller quotation from his text would have made clear: “To understand the higher forms of social intercourse at this period, we must keep before our minds that fact…
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