January 07, 2012

"The Renaissance Portrait" at the Met

Happy New Year greetings to my wonderful readers!  To start the year off on a very bright note, I'd like to tell you about a marvelous exhibition that just opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York.  I've been longing to see this show but thought I'd wait until the out-of-town crowds thinned a little and today, with a spring-like temperature of 60 degrees, was the day to walk across Central Park and go.

I love Renaissance portraits having discovered their beauty quite by accident on a short visit to Bruges, Belgium, in November 1999.  It was unseasonably cold and my friends' recommendation to take a boat ride on the city's canals was entirely out of the question as they were completely frozen over.  In a desperate attempt to find something to do in a warm environment I persuaded my Dada-devotee husband to check out a special exhibition that had been advertised on banners all over town - "From Memling to Pourbus".  Not knowing anything about the Netherlandish Renaissance I rented an audio guide and started the tour.  After about 30 seconds my husband tapped me on the shoulder and wanted to share the headset.  Between the magical atmosphere inside a Gothic cathedral and the gentle but compelling beauty of the portraits, we were entranced and never since have missed an opportunity to see more of these painted "snapshots" of the Middle Ages.

What I discovered at this latest show at the Met, is that there is a distinct difference between the Northern and Southern European styles of portraiture at that time.  Both the Flemish and the Italian Renaissance masters sought the same objective of commemorating and/or glorifying the image of family members, heads of state and of the church but each achieved it in a slightly different way.  For example, the Italians preferred the profile as opposed to a three quarter or full face view of the sitter favored by the Belgians.  The Italians also adopted a sparer, more direct, view of the subject while in the North portraits were often enhanced with background scenery or objects that pertained to the situation of the sitter.  Both schools are magnificent in their attention to detail and ability to capture psychological traits with a few brushstrokes.

What I also learned is that the Italian Renaissance portrait artists, namely Veneziano, Donatello, Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Pisanello, Mantegna, Bellini and the master of all, Leonardo da Vinci, used many different media to capture their sitters' likeness'.  Beside the traditional oil painting, portraits were often executed as marble busts or relief sculptures, chalk drawings on paper, cameo pendants, illuminated manuscript paintings on parchment or quite frequently as bronze medallions.

The exhibition spans the period from approximately 1450-1530, the heyday of Renaissance portraiture and focus' on the major center of Florence under the influence of the mighty Medicis, the courts of Ferrara, Mantua, Bologna, Milan, Urbino, Napoli and Papal Rome, and finally Venice where the concept was late to take hold.  160 works, including some fabulous loans (two from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II), present a comprehensive and cohesive survey of why and how this genre developed and its considerable influence on contemporary culture and society.

A quote from Leonardo da Vinci graces the wall at the entry to the exhibition.  He explains "How to make a portrait in profile after seeing the subject only once:  You must commit to memory the variations of the four different features in profile, which would be the nose, the mouth, the chin, and the forehead.  Let us speak first of noses, of which there are three kinds..."  He makes it sound so simple!  "The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini" is on view until March 18, 2012.

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