Germany: When Faces Defied Death

Willibald Sauerländer, translated from the German by David Dollenmayer
sauerlander_1-112411.jpg
National Gallery, London
Albrecht Dürer the Elder; portrait by Albrecht Dürer of his father, 1497

The birth of the portrait at the dawn of modern society was much more than a mere event in the history of art. It stimulated the self-representation of emperors, kings, and princes and changed the way the rich and famous satisfied their craving for recognition. In painted panels that captured the appearance of a person as in a mirror, in etchings and woodcuts that allowed multiple reproductions of the portrait to be sent abroad, the likenesses of distinguished personalities could overcome the constraints of place, time, mortality, and oblivion. Rulers became ubiquitously present through their widespread likenesses, as shown by the example of the early-sixteenth-century Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. Scholars like Maximilian’s contemporary Erasmus of Rotterdam distributed their portraits to contemporaries and willed them to posterity to ensure their lasting fame.

Thus the desire for portraits is closely related to the fear of the end of life and the loss of status. This fear is inscribed in the portraits of the humanists. Beneath Albrecht Dürer’s imposing portrait of his friend Willibald Pirckheimer we read, “We live on in Spirit, the rest is subject to Death.” In his Primer of Painting Dürer writes, “The art of painting preserves the figure of the subject after his death.” Thus, although the rise of portraiture did not lead to “the discovery of man” as the title of this exhibition and many other texts claim, it did expand the means of societal communication and create a new public visibility for the distinguished and well-to-do.

As in banking and humanistic studies, Italy also led the way in the rise of portraiture, with Florence and Venice as its main focal points. A splendid show, currently to be seen in Berlin and later at the Metropolitan Museum, displays Italian Renaissance portraiture from Donatello to Bellini. It presents an exquisite selection of paintings, drawings, and sculptures from Florence, the Italian Courts, and Venice. The proud portraits, busts, and medals of Florentine bankers and humanists are shown along with the sophisticated likenesses from the courts at Ferrara, Mantua, and Urbino. It seems no exaggeration to say that Italian portraits from the age of humanism, as well as Venetian portraits, with their dreaminess or saturated opulence, have never before been exhibited with such intelligence and richness.* At the same time, a more intimate kind of portrait blossomed in the Low Countries around the Burgundian court and in wealthy mercantile cities like Bruges and Ghent. Here, the subject is portrayed with more indulgence, often in an interior, next to a window, as in Jan van Eyck’s fifteenth-century Arnolfini Portrait (now in London’s National Gallery).

Not long afterward, demand for portraits arose in Germany as well, both in its numerous principalities and among the bourgeois inhabitants of the imperial cities directly under the authority of the emperor. In some of these works an idiosyncratic curiosity about physiognomy at times led to odd and …

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  1. *

    Gesichter der Renaissance: Meisterwerke italienischer Portrait-Kunst,” an exhibition at the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, August 20–November 20, 2011, and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, December 21, 2011–March 18, 2012. The title of the New York exhibition will be “The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini.”