Renaissance Portraits at New York's Metropolitan Museum (Photos)

What counts as a portrait? Blake Gopnik looks at the debate behind the Met’s stunning Renaissance exhibit.

Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Städel Museum, Frankfurt. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ideal or Real?

Sandro Botticelli's Ideal Portrait of a Lady, painted in around 1475 in Florence, is one of the gems of a huge show,The Renaissance Portrait From Donatello to Bellini, which just opened at New York's Metropolitan Museum. The exhibition looks at the very beginnings of people-pictures in Western art, gathering some of the greatest portraits ever made, with one stunning image after another. But here's its big surprise: The Renaissance Portrait proves that we still know almost nothing about how portraits work, how they were made, why they were made, or even what a portrait really is. Can almost any picture of a person's face count as a portrait, or does a portrait need to have been made through direct contact with its sitter? How idealized—or caricatural—can a picture be, and still count as a portrait? Can we ever say for sure what's a "realistic" portrait versus a deceptively flattering one? Were portraits commissioned mostly to show other people what the patron looked like and stood for, or to establish that patron's own sense of self, in an age where mirrors were small and flawed? Or were portraits commissioned simply so viewers could take pleasure in the fine art of portrayal? We don't even know how people sat for their portraits, or for how long—if and when they did at all. Even a portrait as famous and heavily studied as Botticelli's, which is on loan from Frankfurt's Städel Museum, provokes almost every one of these questions.


In this slideshow, see the range of Renaissance objects that can seem to count as portraits, and the range of problems they arouse.

—Blake Gopnik

Palazzina di Marfisa d’Este, Ferrara, Italy. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Duke of Ferrara as His Own Mascot

A 1475 portrait of Ercole I d'Este, the Duke of Ferrara, by Sperandio of Mantua, from the collection of the Palazzina di Marfisa d’Este in Ferrara, Italy. This is one of the most striking and unusual items in the Met exhibition. The effect of the profile face above the almost frontal armor is to make the duke into his own coat of arms, with his head in place of the unicorn or lion or buck, which might have been seen on a family's armorial bearings.

Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino, Italy. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A Learned Warrior

A portrait of Federigo da Montefeltro, the great mercenary also known as the Duke of Urbino. The duke was portrayed in about 1475 with his son Guidobaldo by the artist Pietro di Spagna. It is now in the collection of the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in Urbino, Italy. It manages to blend the formality of the profile view you might see on a coin with a three-quarters view of the duke at ease in his quarters, reading in Latin—in full armor, however.

Collection of Stephen and Janie Woo Scher, New York. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Birth of the Portrait Medal

A 1444 portrait medal of Leonello d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, by the great Italian innovator known as Pisanello, now in the collection of Stephen and Janie Woo Scher in New York. The portrait medal--a commemorative "coin" without any value as currency--was pretty much invented by Pisanello, for the Ferrarese court. The medal's portrayal of its subject in profile influenced later painted portraits.

Musée du Louvre, Paris. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

What Ever Happened to Flattery?

A "portrait" of an old man and a boy, painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio in about 1490 and now in the Louvre in Paris. The usual assumption in portraiture is that it will always make a sitter look better than reality, so was the old man in this famous picture even more deformed than he looks here? Or did the pleasure to be taken from the accurate depiction of peculiarity overcome any hesitation about portraying him as he was? The "everyday," even the ugly, has always had an artistic appeal of its own.

Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A Drawing From Life—of a Long-Dead Poet

This drawing of a middle-aged man by Luca Signorelli, circa 1490, has been said to be a "portrait" of the poet Dante, who had died 200 years earlier. It makes clear the confusion that still reigns, and that may never dissipate, about how portraiture works and what it can represent. The drawing is in the Kupferstichkabinett of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Musée du Louvre, Paris. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sculpted Presences

The Florentine banker Filippo Strozzi, in a portrait sculpted  by the artist Benedetto da Maiano in 1475 and now in the Louvre in Paris. This work is presented at the Met both in a full-size terra-cotta model and in this marble version made from it, and both pay amazing attention to the anatomical details particular to its subject's face. The sculptors in the Met exhibition mostly put its painters to shame, even though their names are much less well known. We moderns have a pro-painting bias that we badly need to get over, and that wouldn't have been shared by Renaissance patrons.

Münzkabinett, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A Golden Ruler

A portrait medal in solid gold of Isabella d'Este, Marchioness of Mantua, by Gian Cristoforo Romano, from 1498 or later, a rare 15th-century medal for which substantial documentation exists. Romano was one of the very most appreciated of artists at the end of the 15th century, although even experts now mostly ignore him. His works at the Met give the impression that his skill was in supplying precisely what his courtly patrons wanted, rather than in pushing them to want anything new. The piece is in the Münzkabinett of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A Portrait of Finery

A portrait of an unknown Renaissance lady, painted around 1460 by the Florentine artist Antonio del Pollaiuolo and now in the Gemäldegalerie of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Our current tastes make us concentrate on the humans in these pictures, but their original audiences might have been just as drawn to the stunning textiles on display. This artist certainly seems to have spent more energy on the fabrics in his painting than on his sitter's face.

Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A Face Is Enough

A wonderfully direct portrayal of the Cardinal Ludovico Trevisan executed by Andrea Mantegna in about 1460. It is now in the Gemäldegalerie of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Mantegna leaves out almost all the trappings of power you might expect in a portrait of a powerful cleric, who was commander of the papal armies. (This portrait was almost certainly meant to be hung high up on a wall, so it looks much more natural when viewed from below.)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Marquand Collection.

Passing Glances

Fra Filippo Lippi's portrait of an unnamed woman and man, painted some time in the early 1440s and now in the Metropolitan Museum's own collection. The two figures that seem to look beyond each other give the picture a very strange quality. 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Memento, or Collectible?

Francesco Francia's 1510 portrait of Federigo II Gonzaga, the future Duke of Mantua, at the age of 10. A series of documents tell us that the boy was involved in an elaborate diplomatic exchange that left him the hostage (or guest and ward) of Pope Julius II in Rome, and that his mother, the duchess, commissioned this portrait, painted in 12 days, to remind her of the absent boy—although within a couple of years she had passed it on, as an independent work of art, to an early portrait collector. The piece is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sitter or Saint?

In 1515 the great Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini painted the Dominican friar Teodoro of Urbino in the guise of Saint Dominic, founder of his order. What we don't know is whether the picture was intended as a devotional image of the dead saint that Bellini made more lifelike by using a specific living model, or whether it was meant to commemorate Fra Teodoro's own sanctity by identifying him with Saint Dominic. The piece is on long-term loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum to the National Gallery in London.