Blog post 2: Women in Renaissance Art

Since my last blog post, I’ve decided to further narrow the scope of my paper. I had initially hoped to cover portrayals of women in secular and religious Renaissance art, as well as women artists of the same time period. However, in doing my research, I realized that this collection of topics was extremely broad and that I needed to narrow my focus more in order to have some hope of developing a cohesive paper. I have decided to focus on the topics of female portraiture, marriage furniture, and women artists. In this blog post, I’ll give an overview of female portraiture.

 

Most of the information on portraiture that I have come across has been specific to Florentine portraits of women. Female portraits proliferated in Florence from 1440-1540, when portraiture became accessible to the merchant class. Most portraits of women were commissioned around the time of their betrothal or marriage, and the women appear lavishly dressed in expensive clothes and jewels. In addition to being recorded in portrait form, the bride’s finery was displayed to the public when she processed from her home to the home of her husband’s family. The husband was responsible for providing the clothing and jewelry, and this display of wealth on the body of the bride was meant to proclaim the honor and status of the couple. During a time when a church ceremony was not necessary in order to make a marriage official, this public display was a crucial part of the marriage ritual.

 

Until the 1470s, the standard pose for female portraits was the profile. This was partly due to historical precedents. Ancient coins had depicted rulers in profile, and donor portraits showed patrons kneeling in profile. In addition to these regal and religious associations, the profile portrait, which prevented the subject from engaging with the viewer, emphasized the modesty that was expected of women. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Ginevra de’Benci and Botticelli’s Woman at a Window were groundbreaking because of their use of the three-quarter pose, which allowed the subject to make eye contact with the viewer. These two paintings initiated a shift from the profile to the three-quarter pose.

 

Beauty was associated with virtue in Renaissance thought, and outer beauty was thought to reflect inner virtue. Ideas about female beauty were strongly influenced by vernacular poetry, especially Petrarch’s descriptions of his beloved, Laura. The ideal beautiful woman of Renaissance Florence had blond hair, like Petrarch’s Laura, and until 1490, women regularly dyed their hair in order to achieve this effect. It was also fashionable to have a high forehead, which was attained by plucking back the hairline. Other characteristics of beautiful women were meticulously codified in treatises such as Agnolo Firenzuola’s Dialogo Delle Belleze Delle Donne.

 

Sources:

Brown, David Alan. 2001. Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo’s Ginevra de’Benci and Renaissance Portraits of Women. Washington: National Gallery of Art.

Comments

  1. emmamerrill says:

    I’m curious whether the ideal of outer beauty matching inner virtue was questioned in the cases of women who were not quite as virtuous as their appearance may have lead people to assume. Did you encounter any such women in your research? If so, did the public just assume the portraiture and other such art was fraudulent or was the behavior overlooked in favor of their beauty?

    For that matter, did you focus on portraits of certain women or certain artists? Were certain artists always employed to paint certain women or did people switch artists? I love your topic and sympathize with your dilemma about breadth of information! I had a similar issue with my research.

  2. madisonfox says:

    Hi Elena! Firstly, I find your subject matter to be very interesting. I do have to say I had very little prior knowledge about sixteenth century Florentine art and your post left me intrigued to learn more. The first thing that strikes me are the social implications of such portraiture and what it can tell historians about the social classes, customs, and role of women specifically in sixteenth century Florence. I think you did a good job of describing how the wealthier classes used this as a sign of prestige and power, but I do wonder if men also received portraiture to show their wealth or if this was solely for women? If solely for women it would show even more of a focus on women’s outward appearance, especially when used to highlight their husbands status.
    When you spoke of the different angles of portraiture, I immediately thought of DaVinci’s Mona Lisa and its three-quarter pose that so vividly shows the viewer her countenance. Upon some research I realized this famous work was completed in Florence in your specific time of research and thought it would be interesting to hear your take on it in relation to works of that time and reasoning for its permanence in pubic appreciation. Lastly, I wonder if perhaps the change in angles of women’s face may represent a difference in womens’ status in society? Did the chnage correlate with any increases in women’s power in politics or even domestically?

  3. Hi Elena, do you think the Renaissance artist tended to avoid a realistic perception of beauty and instead chose to emphasize whichever features they felt were more physically or politically pleasing? For example, Botticelli’s Venus emphasizes beauty in Renaissance Florence in a significantly different way from the Venus portrayed by the
    German artist, Lucas Cranach. The northern European Venus is much less voluptuous than her Italian counterpart but is still inspired by similar humanist principles and keeps a significant amount of female sexuality.