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.

Hans Holbein the Younger, ‘Grace Newport, Lady Parker’ (1540-43)

Hans Holbein the Younger, ‘Grace Newport, Lady Parker’ (1540-43)

Who were the people in these pictures? Why were they painted? The answers are more various than they would be were this an exhibition of 17th or 18th-century portraits. The identity of those in high positions – Bellini’s Doge Leonardo Loredan, Justus of Ghent’s Duke of Urbino – is well attested, but Palma Vecchio’s Portrait of a Woman, ‘La Bella’ is one of a class of pictures of handsome Venetians that may be portraits of brides, courtesans or recently married women, or may be idealised images: pin-ups not persons. Palma Vecchio’s portrait of a young man, on the other hand, while not definitely of Ariosto (although the book he rests his arm on and the laurels that spread behind him are likely attributes of a poet), is surely of a real person. Hilliard’s Young Man among Roses is a portrait, we don’t know of whom, but it is such a perfect image of the wan lover that one has no desire to burden it with specifics. The full-length kings and queens – Titian’s Philip II of Spain, Antonis Mor’s Philip II, Joanna of Austria and Mary Tudor – are embalmed in emblematic sobriety; memoirs or diplomatic gossip will tell you more about them. Titian’s Pope Paul III Bareheaded is different: the picture so strong in composition and technique, its presence so intimidating, that it seems to command that you come to a conclusion about the man who looks out from it. The pictures from the Low Countries are tight in technique and stiff: they display, but don’t encourage you to enter the world they depict with mesmerising precision. Which may be why you so much want to break into it. In the portrait by Jan Van Eyck of his wife, Margaret (another big head on a small body), her thin lips, slightly raised eyebrows and cool glance are not welcoming. Could you perhaps persuade her to smile? What would she look like then?

In this picture and in the double portrait of Arnolfini and his wife, Van Eyck renders everything so perfectly that ordinary materials are transformed into objects of great luxury. Stand back a little and painted surface speaks only of flesh, hair, fabric, a room and its contents. No wonder that the portrait of Margaret was so precious that the Bruges painters’ guild kept it in a coffer with five locks, each key kept by a separate official. Titian’s transformation of materials is different. You are shown that scumbled surfaces and dragged marks can become a human presence without losing their identity as marks. The work of the human hand is to be wondered at in both cases, but in Titian you wonder at the presence of the evidence, in Van Eyck at its absence.

The craft of portrait painting addresses facts, the art of it goes beyond them. It is in drawings that you see the first stages of the process. Lorne Campbell’s catalogue essay, ‘The Making of Portraits’, shows that many problems and possibilities remain unaltered.* Sitters always tend to get bored and to complain about not looking pretty enough. Children become restless. Great men and women don’t have much time. What is surprising is to find that portraits were quite often painted from verbal descriptions – Titian’s portrait of the Duchess of Urbino was worked up from the Duke’s ‘verbal descriptions’. Although a dress was sent – Titian had insisted on ‘crimson or rose velvet’ – he seems to have found another that suited the picture better. But when a candidate for marriage was being checked out it was important to see the sitter in the flesh. Holbein had only three hours to draw Christina of Denmark, but he worked more quickly than many. The painting he made from his studies, one of his most sympathetic, is in the exhibition, so is his drawing of Grace Newport in the same full-face pose. It gives an idea of the kind of study he would have brought back to work from. Drawings like this take one back to several kinds of starting point. You can see how Ghirlandaio made use of a posthumous drawing in his Louvre portrait of an old man and his grandson. He brings to life the face he had drawn of the old man when dead and somehow makes the deformed nose – the rhinophyma – emphasise the sweetness of his expression.

The range of what is shown here is too great for the individual works to do much for each other, but it does make it possible to illustrate many themes. The meaning of attributes is not always transparent; it’s clear that Lotto’s man and woman being joined under a yoke by a blue and pink winged cupid will become man and wife when the ring he holds is slipped on the finger she offers, but you probably have to be told that the gold chain around her shoulders (the vinculum amoris) symbolises her submission to her husband and that the cameo she wears shows ‘Faustina the Elder, the devoted wife of the Emperor Antoninus Pius (ad 138-161) and the embodiment of the perfect spouse’; ‘Lotto, who was an imaginative user of attributes, loved the enigmatic.’ There are memorials of friendship of which Pontormo’s and Raphael’s double portraits of friends are among the most striking. Raphael’s pair fell out, but the rift was healed before they died and Pietro Bembo, who commissioned the picture in the first place, eventually gave it to the survivor. The works gathered here were made by purveyors of a commercial product. It shows most clearly in the portraits of rulers that take their place one by one in the long galleries of royal palaces. Demand could be brisk. In 1533 Lucas Cranach was paid for 60 pairs of portraits of the late electors of Saxony, Frederick the Wise and John the Constant.

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