National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Portrait Painting in Florence in the Later 1400s
Overview

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It is hard to imagine a world without images of living people, but in western Europe portraiture had essentially disappeared with the collapse of Roman civilization. Only such figures as saints, the Virgin and child, and angels—or devils and the anonymous damned—were depicted in paint (although rulers, in imitation of Roman and Byzantine emperors, might put a generic profile on coins). It has been suggested that physical appearance was not a particularly important element of self-image or even a primary means of identification in the Middle Ages. Station in life, family and local affiliations, occupation—these were how people knew themselves and others. But by the time these paintings were made between about 1450 and 1500, a thousand years after the fall of ancient Rome, notions about identity and the individual had changed.

The earliest portraits had appeared in altarpieces, where tiny donors knelt in prayer to a central image of the Virgin or other holy personage. Independent portraits, however, would have to await the man-centered worldview of the Renaissance. Men and women now sought "speaking likenesses" for a range of purposes for the first time since antiquity. Portraits became part of the dynastic business of kingdoms and were deployed as statements of wealth and status. Portraits of prospective brides were reviewed by rulers contemplating marriage. Many aristocratic couples were "introduced" through images. Likenesses were also commissioned, as they are most often today, as a way to immortalize loved ones. The first such portrait we hear of was painted by Simone Martini for his friend Petrarch to capture the beauty and spirit of the poet's beloved Laura. Increasingly, as the works in this gallery demonstrate, painters strove to convey not simply physical appearance but personality and character as well: what Leonardo da Vinci called "the motions of the mind."

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