Measuring up

Nicholas Penny

  • Renaissance Portraits: European Portrait Painting in the 14th, 15th and 16th Centuries by Lorne Campbell
    Yale, 290 pp, £35.00, May 1990, ISBN 0 300 04675 8

Opposite the first page of Lorne Campbell’s Renaissance Portraits is a large colour plate of a pair of young female hands emerging from crisp and translucent white cuffs with black borders. The hands, which clasp soft buff kid gloves against a black satin gown, belong to Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan – or rather to the arresting full-length portrait of her by Holbein reproduced nearby. We learn from one of the unusually informative captions that King Henry VIII was taken with the idea of making Christina, a teenage widow, his fourth wife. He dispatched Holbein, his court painter, to Brussels to record her likeness. She sat to Holbein between 1 and 4 p.m. on 12 March 1538. The artist left Brussels that night and within a few days the King was able to study her picture. It put him into a ‘much better humour’. Musicians were ordered to ‘play on their instruments all day long’. Luckily for Christina, the scheme came to nothing; Holbein, however, was able to use he drawings he had made in Brussels to paint he great full-length portrait.

Campbell makes good use of detail plates, for he scrutinises paintings with especial keenness. Nor is he less interested in minute particulars of the historical evidence: it is typical that he specifies the exact hours of Christina’s sitting. His book covers the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries and the whole of Europe, reinterpreting familiar facts, assembling little-known ones and supplying quotations, often from obscure sources, which shed new light on how portraits were commissioned, made, used and esteemed. A particularly valuable section of the book concerns the way in which the painter was expected to provide reliable information. This was important above all in the official survey of a proposed bride. Campbell quotes from the instructions given to Henry VII’s ambassadors regarding the widowed Queen of Naples in 1505. They were enjoined ‘to marke whether there appere any here aboutes her lippes or not’ and to approach as ‘nere to hir mouthe as they honestly maye’ to check for bad breath. They were also to get a ‘conynge’ painter to depict her and ensure that his work was accurate. A discussion follows of the practice of taking measurements of sitters. Campbell quotes a touching letter in which the Duchess of Milan (a predecessor of Christina) explains to her mother that she would have liked to send measurements as well as a drawing of her baby, but was prevented by the superstition that a measured infant stops growing. In other cases portraits were bowed to or abused by subjects and kissed by spouses. The need for such portraits to be ad vivum, al naturale, au vif, to measure up to reality, was connected with their efficacy as substitutes.

Campbell is happier assembling examples than generalising from them, and is quick to discern exceptions to the generalisations of others. Even when confronted by a work of such outstanding originality as Van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait, he is more concerned to remind us of the existence of earlier double portraits and full-length portraits than he is to expand upon its novelty. The progress of conventions and motifs in painted portraits is traced with more emphasis on continuity than on change. Innovations and changes in convention are perhaps more conspicuous in fields of portraiture which Campbell does not, for the most part, consider – tomb effigies, sculptured busts and medals. He points out that the use of columns to frame landscape views behind sitters, a common feature in portraits by Memling, was imitated in Italy. Indeed, the Mona Lisa (although, surprisingly, he doesn’t mention this) originally included such columns. He also connects this convention with Titian’s use of asymmetrical columns and pilasters of huge proportions. But this is surely completely different and was suggested to Titian by the massive columns he had deployed as part of the palatial theatrical setting for the Virgin in the great altarpiece of the Pesaro family in the Church of the Frari. Campbell’s emphasis on Netherlandish originality and influence in the 18th century is fully justified but it is oddly coupled with an underestimation of Italian innovation in the 16th. This imbalance is found again when, in this rapid and stimulating survey of props, Campbell moves on from columns to landscapes. He notes the increasingly popular use in late 15th-century portraits of a distant panorama behind the sitter’s head. Again, this motif comes from the Netherlands. In the mid-16th century Bronzino used a landscape background for his portrait of Eleanora of Toledo and Campbell suggests that he ‘may have been almost parodying an archaic and expensive convention’. Perhaps this was a revival (if not ‘almost a parody’), but Bronzino’s horizon is placed far below Eleanor’s head, thus enhancing her grandeur, and the sky is of so deep a blue that we suppose it to be night. Neither of these features can be found in 15th-century portraiture.

Campbell’s tendency to underplay change within the centuries surveyed is accompanied by a confidence, at times exhilarating but at times unnerving, in our ability to grasp the artist’s intentions. He several times asserts that ‘empathy and common sense’ are sufficient for an understanding of the portraits discussed. ‘A cursory look at Classical and Renaissance books on rhetoric will demonstrate what should, perhaps, be obvious: that, in European civilisations, the same gestures and expressions have always made the same emotional signals and produced the same reactions.’ Maybe. But after the cursory look one may perhaps wonder whether anything is really ‘demonstrated’ other than that Renaissance books on this subject were indebted to Classical ones. Certainly there is no common European language of gesture today. Italians, for instance, assert that they are in earnest by pressing the fingernails of both hands together and touching the centre of their chest with them. You won’t see this north of the Alps. Surely there was no more homogeneity in Europe four or five centuries ago? Nor arc gestures permanent in one country – or in its art. Young British noblemen painted by Sargent, Lawrence and Reynolds, for instance, may resemble those painted by Van Dyck, but they do not dangle their hands in the same way. Social conventions change too. Not many people today kneel to kiss hands, let alone feet: at a Renaissance court bowing and scraping were usual. This affects modern attitudes to Titian’s portrait of Pope Paul III and his grandsons, making the cordial respect of youth seem like the obsequiousness of a crafty courtier. It is ‘empathy and common sense’ which makes people so certain that a solemn nuptial oath is intended by the raised hand of the man in the Arnolfini portrait – a certainty by which Campbell is rightly irritated.

‘A portrait,’ Campbell writes, ‘is usually the most intimate record available of a sitter’s personality. Written sources are as biased and as difficult to interpret as visual ones and demand a similar application of critical empathy and sound common sense.’ But I would have thought that literary evidence is more likely to be genuinely ‘intimate’. It is more likely to come from a close friend of the sitter or from someone who has long acquaintance with him or her; moreover, writers are not under the obligation to please which was usual for portrait painters. Academic references, however formulaic, are more valued than portrait photographs in, say, the assessment of an applicant to the Courtauld Institute. It must have been unusual for an artist to know a sitter at all well. A painter told me how, when engaged in painting a royal duchess, he had to conduct conversations with – or rather deliver verbal messages to – her through a lady-in-waiting even though the duchess was seated only a few feet away. It may be true that the Emperor is supposed to have picked up a brush which Titian had dropped, but some distance must have been normal when the sitter was of high rank. Nor was a sitting likely to be relaxing. Christina of Denmark presumably had to keep still for three hours. She must have been bored and she may have been worried – she had plenty of time to think about the embraces of the obese monster across the Channel. Holbein may have discovered in her face the engaging and alert intelligence which to our eyes the portrait possesses, or he may have inspired her to assume such an expression, or he may simply have imposed it on her features – most likely, he did a little of all these things; but I do not believe that he was engaged in ‘analysis’ of the sitter’s ‘private self’, or that this would have been ‘expected’.

The portrait painter often depicted his subject’s figure in action in invented circumstances as a way of suggesting precisely that familiarity which he himself did not enjoy. One of the most popular and effective devices was to have the sitter look up from a book as if interrupted – men especially, when depicted in this way, often frown with surprise. A pair of portraits by Quinten Metsys, now divided between a private collection in Switzerland and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, are of interest in this connection. The woman in this case looks up frowning from her prayer-book. Campbell writes that she is ‘determined to ignore’ not only her husband but ‘also her prayer-book and indeed ourselves’. It is, as he says, curious that she looks neither at him nor at us. But to look up from a book hardly indicates a determination to ignore it, least of all when the person doing so looks a little cross. My chief objection to such an interpretation is that it doesn’t take into account the fact that the situation in which she is depicted was an invention – the painter was not aspiring to the position of a reporter. Even when he was surveying a proposed bride, it was her appearance not her conduct which would have been his concern, especially if he had only a few hours in which to study her. One hesitates to join Campbell in concluding that ‘Metsys has given us every reason to suspect the lady of uncharitable and uncompromising strength of character.’ We may agree that she looks sour, but we should not feel sure that she was meant to. Does the unknown lady in a yellow dress painted by Bronzino (in the Galleria Sabauda, Turin) look ‘prim’, as Campbell claims? I don’t think so. There is more point in arguing about her book, however. Its extremely small size, Campbell conjectures, ‘might he a reference to the extent of her intellectual interests’. Big books may hint at great learning but surely pocket ones don’t indicate little minds.

If it was important for portraits to be ‘ad vif’ then it was also important for them to devise appropriate masks and emblems for power and gentility – and the fiction of informal conviviality. Missing from Campbell’s book is a full perception of the falsity of portraits and of the imagination of portraitists, even though he does discuss with great intelligence the process of idealisation and distortion often involved. He is excellent at pointing out deliberate deviations from orthodox perspective or proportions, as in the portraiture of Antonis Mor, to which much of his final chapter is devoted; but it seems extraordinary to assume, as he does, that because such deviations are not evident in Titian’s work, Titian was a more ‘direct’ portraitist. He even writes that it has been ‘demonstrated’ that Mor was ‘a less faithful imitator of reality than Titian’. What is, or rather seems, direct about Titian’s portraits – the vivid presence of the sitters, his actors –is found also in his Rape of Lucretia or his Rape of Danae, paintings which one would not claim as faithful imitations of reality. The level of argument in this part of the work is much below that in an earlier chapter, where Campbell compares a portrait by Memling with one by Van der Goes and compares both with images of the Virgin by the same artists in order to show how much more idealised Memling’s portrait is likely to have been.

In the cause of promoting Mor’s reputation Campbell attempts to demote Titian’s, chiefly by emphasising Titian’s debt to non-Italian sources. When Titian copied a full-length standing portrait of the Emperor it was, according to Campbell, because he was ‘so impressed’ by this formula, which was favoured by German artists. Surely he adopted the formula because he knew it was what the Emperor would have expected. Had he been so deeply impressed by it he would have used it more frequently in his other portraits. Whenever Mor took something from Titian, on the other hand, Campbell, his sceptical acumen restored, speculates that it might have been ‘forced upon him’.

This final chapter opens with the complaint that ‘most modern historians of Renaissance art are content to refer to Europe outside Italy as “the North” ’ and to generalise about Northern artists. A few lines later Campbell himself writes: ‘it is obvious that most Northern artists studied and reproduced detail with greater attention and skill than most Italian artists.’ He objects, however, to the idea that Northern artists were merely realistic: distortion for ‘emotional and aesthetic’ purposes in the art of Van der Weyden or Grunewald can, he claims, be likened to that in Picasso’s Guernica. The Italians, on the other hand, were ‘encumbered by an artistic theory that was based on Classical texts and that exalted both naturalism and idealism’. It is sad that in order to defend alternative values Campbell has to disparage the standards which enabled Raphael (for example) to create his greatest works. Nor was the ‘encumbrance’ difficult to throw off. If we really must judge art by its approximation to Guernica, then Rosso Fiorentino comes closer to it than either Van der Weyden or Grünewald. This unfortunate polemical conclusion is partly redeemed by the startlingly incisive analysis of Mor’s portraiture. And it does not, of course, diminish the value of Campbell’s earlier chapters, which supply an authoritative history of the Renaissance portrait. There are interpretations one may wish to challenge but they are always stimulating, supplying numerous insights into the practice and business of portraiture, and, especially when he writes about Van der Weyden and Bellini, Campbell is often exhilarating to read. The book is not only superbly illustrated, but the relationship between text and plates and captions has been calculated with unusual intelligence.