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