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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.