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Old Faces

Portraiture tends to provoke split vision, for the portrait always presents two centers for attention: the sitter and the artist. This split exists, of course, to some extent in all representational art: there is always the interaction between style and subject. But only the portrait-maker has to contend with subject matter that not only can, but frequently does, answer back; that, still more important, pays the bill according to satisfaction given or not given. Perhaps this explains why portraiture, as an art form, has tended to have a bad press from artists and art historians; it breeds compromise and impairs the divine autonomy of art, and many artists since Michelangelo have explicitly scorned “the slavery of the portrait.”

Even most historians, as distinct from art historians, have used portraits largely as peripheral material, “visual aids” added to their books as a sop to their readers. And indeed portraits are awkward to handle, irreducible to print, and impossible to capture in a footnote. Instead, the face on the halftone block often may seem to reject outright the shape that the writer’s words have given it. Portraits are illusions and to different eyes show different virtues and characters. They breed untidy irrelevancies, like life. Therefore, they are also, for the true portrait-addict, the best of anti-historians; in almost all portraits there is some intent of irrational magic.

Understandably perhaps there has been little writing of any quality about portraiture, although the invention of the modern portrait by the Greeks and its re-invention in the Renaissance are among the most fascinating phenomena in the history not only of art but of the concept of human individuality. Mr. Pope-Hennessy’s book, an account of the portrait in the Renaissance, is therefore all the more welcome. It is informed by a magisterial scholarship and ordered with lucid logic.

Two main criticisms first: One concerns a book the author did not write rather than the one he did. The original title of the A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts for 1963, on which the text is based, was “The Artist and the Individual: Some Aspects of the Renaissance Portrait,” indicating clearly a deliberate limitation of scope. The present title is doubtless the publisher’s (“Aspects of…” being a well-known kiss of death to any commercial prospects); but it is a pity. Mr. Pope-Hennessy, in his Preface, admits that he is “acutely conscious of omission,” specifically of any mention of, for example, Anthonis Mor and Francesco Laurana. The reader expecting a comprehensive survey of Renaissance portraiture will note other absences: there is no discussion of Lomazzo’s justification of “intellectual portraits” at the end of the period; nothing of the nascent habits of collecting portraits; nor any detailed account of the use of portraits as moral exempla.

The second criticism concerns the form. Lecture endowments such as the A. W. Mellon fund have great virtues, not the least of which is that, without their impulse, many scholars, particularly when they are also exalted museum officials beset by worldly duties, might never codify their great and valuable knowledge into permanent form at all. But there are disadvantages, especially that described by an earlier Mellon lecturer, E. H. Gombrich, as the tyranny of the clock. The six periods of an hour each in which the material has to be put across determine its length and, to a lesser degree, its treatment. With lantern lectures the phasing tends to be even more metronomically dictated, and even in Mr. Pope-Hennessy’s careful text one begins after a while, through abrupt or elliptical transitions, to hear the click of the slide-shuttle. To re-write material cast in this form is, as any lecturer can testify, a proposition both searing and impracticable.

IT IS REGRETTABLE that The Portrait in the Renaissance falls somewhat short, in comprehensiveness, of the formidable standard set by the author’s earlier three volumes on Italian sculpture. Yet for what we have we may be grateful. Mr. Pope-Hennessy has fixed his scope by restricting the term “Renaissance” to its original meaning as the Italian Renaissance: thus in his thesis the work of Van Eyck is only an impinging factor, and he does not really concern himself with Northern artists until Dürer, with whom the Italian influence first rises and then floods through Europe.

Difficulties arise also with the ordering of the material. A strictly chronological arrangement, for example, would have had the advantage of showing the initial drama of the gradual emergence of individual men and women, in the illusion of their flesh, out of the faceless centuries of the Dark and Middle Ages. An arrangement according to the various types of portrait, bust, profile, whole length, and so on, was another possibility. Mr. Pope-Hennessy chose, however, to arrange his material “in terms of the ideas by which [Renaissance portraiture] was inspired.” Thus the first section deals with the “Cult of Personality,” and is concerned largely with the fifteenth century, the emergence of the independent portrait from collective documentary likenesses, with an admirable analysis of the Florentine profiles and of the achievement in portraiture of Botticelli. The difficulties of ordering so complex a subject are immediately apparent: this section is in one sense incomplete, as the main discussion of the development of the donor portrait, which really belongs here, is held over for separate treatment to the last chapter. Nevertheless this section ends with an excellent assessment of the achievement and impact of that still-underrated genius, the portrait painter Antonello da Messina, who first grafted the flexible Flemish oil technique into Italian paintings and with it a language of expressive characterization of the face which makes all earlier Italian portraits, even Botticelli’s or Pollaiuolo’s, seem, in contrast, artificial contrivances.

THE SECOND SECTION, “Humanism and the Portrait,” accounts for the development in scholarly and antiquarian circles of the medallic and the sculptural bust portrait, inspired consciously by classical precedent, and beginning really with Alberti, “victim of a lifelong fascination with his own intellectual identity.” The pious commemoration of men of intellect and learning in a physical likeness both enduring and precise was aided by the revival of the classical habit of taking a mask from the face of the sitter. The section closes with those two allied stars of Northern humanism, Erasmus and More; with them, a mutual admiration pact, still alive, was established between the visual artist and the intellectual. Immortal fame and personal vanity cohabit in the intellectual portrait; and in the eighteenth century Voltaire could not approvingly that, whereas he had observed the portrait of the English prime minister only above the latter’s own mantelpiece, he had seen that of Alexander Pope in twenty noblemen’s houses.

Perhaps the most impressive chapter of this impressive book is “The Motions of the Mind,” an illuminating discussion of the immense expansion of the scope of portraiture by the giants of the High Renaissance, Leonardo, Raphael, Dürer, Giorgione, and Titian. In the Mona Lisa Leonardo’s long experience culminated in an image that has become perhaps the most famous in the world, achieved through an organic conception of the total visual identity of his sitter: hands and body implement the significance of the head, on which the spirit itself seems lambent. A relentless concentration of the essential formal structure is offset by the melting contours that contain it, as it is also offset by the famous ambiguousness of facial expression: both suggest movement, and so an active involvement with time. Whereas all portraits before Mona Lisa seem set apart for contemplation, taken out of time, the Mona Lisa demands active and immediate participation from the spectator. Almost all the possibilities of the portrait as an independent work of the artistic imagination are latent in her. Mr. Pope-Hennessy’s account of her is warily, almost clinically, morphological, fastidiously un-purple, but with the appearance of the elements of time and mood, portraiture (no longer necessarily a closed definition but an adumbration of possibilities) must challenge even the most austere historian to subjective assessment of character. It is almost a relief to find Mr. Pope-Hennessy succumbing too, and describing the features of Pontormo’s Youth with a Halberd…as “ravaged by self-questioning.” To this spectator they look instead essentially, if splendidly, petulant and libidinous.

Raphael, in the Roman climate of Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, sought to define his sitters’ personalities in less ambiguous terms than did Leonardo. Yet if more precisely finite, Raphael’s characterizations are formulated with extraordinary subtlety, and with them he constituted a new range of portraiture. Among them are the portrait of “embodied intellect”—the wonderful red Cardinal in the Prado, an alert and enquiring presence whose name may be lost but whose identity is established for ever by Raphael. There is the portrait of Tomasino Inghirami, at Boston, whose upturned eyes and gesture seem to expect a response from beyond the picture’s frame—“the first independent Renaissance portrait that is not psychologically self-contained.” And there is the “ruminative portrait,” in which the sitter’s whole body expresses the processes of thought, as in the brooding figure (almost subsiding upon itself) of the aged Pope Julius II.

Most of Raphael’s themes were developed further by the prince of all portrait painters, Titian, in Venice. Titian “allowed the sitter’s personality to determine the structure” in a range of portraits to whose matchless variety later generations have referred back in admiration and envy. Indeed these portraits have been surpassed, in richness and profundity of characterization, only by some of Rembrandt’s. Finally, in El Greco, the attempt to realize the spiritual identity of the sitter begins even to erode his physical identity.

The last three sections are concerned with narrower aspects of the portrait. The Court Portrait and the problems of relating the image of ideal majesty to that of the particular human shortcomings of the tenant of that majesty; Image and Emblem, the demonstration of specific aspects of personality or mood by the use of symbol and allegory; and lastly Donor and Participant—the “individual in the context of belief”—as the kneeling figure in the company of the saints, or as a participant in one of the crucial Christian Mysteries. Here portraiture extends to include even its great opponent, Michelangelo, who sculptured himself as Nicodemus Supporting the Dead Christ—although here the author’s general definition of portraiture as “the depiction of the individual in his own character” seems no longer strictly to apply.

This book will remain for a long time the standard account of the aesthetic development of the Renaissance portrait, although it can be discussed with equal validity in other ways—as a social or biographical document, for example. An objective intellectual analysis of the art of portraiture has long been needed; that when it came it should be of such high quality is fortunate indeed. It is illustrated by 330 good half-tone reproductions, and its weight of scholarship is supported by references of awe-inspiring density, among which this reviewer has toiled dutifully to detect error but—apart from some minor corrections—without success.

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