Virtue and Beauty

Leonardo da Vinci, Ginevra de’ Benci, c. 1474 - 1478

Leonardo da Vinci, Ginevra de' Benci, c. 1474-1478, oil on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund
 

 

 
In a visual culture such as ours, it is hard to imagine a world nearly devoid of images of living people. But that was the case in Europe before the fifteenth century when artists devoted themselves almost exclusively to representing saints, biblical figures, and religious scenes. Secular portraiture was limited mainly to likenesses of rulers or images of donors tucked into the corners of altarpieces and other paintings of sacred themes.

In fifteenth-century Florence, portraiture expanded to encompass members of the merchant class, who appear in scores of panel paintings, on medals, and as marble busts. Almost from the outset, this development included women as well as men. Virtue and Beauty focuses on the flowering of female portraiture in Florence from c. 1440 to c. 1540; it also presents several male portraits, Northern European or courtly analogues, and works that relate specifically to Leonardo's Ginevra de' Benci, one of only three female portraits painted by the master. The works of art on view illustrate the broad shift that occurred in this period from the profile portrait to the three-quarter or frontal view of the sitter. Over time the portraits of women also became larger in scale, more elaborate, and more communicative with the viewer.

Acknowledgments

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