At the National Gallery

Peter Campbell

There are something under a hundred pictures, and more than a hundred faces, in Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian, at the National Gallery until 18 January. Some of the pictures stick firmly to the facts: the line of a nose, the jut of a chin, the texture of stuffs and fur, the shine of gold. Others adjust things to emphasise status or enhance beauty. Sometimes features are adapted to suit the painter’s taste: the catalogue entry for Man with a Pansy and a Skull, painted around 1535, notes that Jan van Scorel and his followers ‘tended to elongate the faces of their male subjects and to enlarge their faces and hands’. That picture is like an inventory. You note the gold tags on the ends of the laces at the man’s neck, his four rings, the flower and the skull. Even if the symbolism escapes you (pansy = pensée = thought; skull = death), the seriousness and the sitter’s sober prosperity do not. When modern caricaturists like David Levine put pulled-about faces on small bodies their drawings project a more distinct personality than is found in their source material – usually paintings and photographs. The characterless little heads and drawn-out bodies of fashion plates do the opposite. In these Renaissance portraits, too, the facts are adjusted to dramatise personality or softened to make the face fit a fashion. The manuscript illustration of around 1490 by the Master of the Prayerbooks, Zeuxis Painting His Ideal Portrait of the Goddess Nature, shows him drawing on the features of the five ‘most beautiful maidens to be found anywhere on earth’ who stand naked before him. Complementary to what is implied there – that perfect beauty must be abstracted from imperfect sources – is the portrait painter’s ability to find echoes of perfection in imperfect individuals and to build on them.

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[*] Renaissance Portraits (National Gallery, 303 pp., £24.95, October, 978 185709 407 7).