Women in Renaissance Portraiture

In the past, it seems to have been more common for demonology to be associated with women. This can be seen in the later Medieval period where women were seen as more prone to witchcraft than men. This is based on traditional beliefs of what was perceived as basic female nature, much of it being seen in Christianity. Trials of witchcraft promoted discussions of gender and influenced the visual arts, and in Renaissance graphic art, particularly in northern Europe, female sorcery was a popular theme.

However, Renaissance portraits of women generally intended to convey beauty and the social role of women instead. Portraits of men generally emphasized their social, political, or professional role, and these portraits were often stereotypically masculine. The function of portraits of male leaders was focussed on politics and their ideal portraits often served as some sort of ambassador of their status during their absence. This shows that men were defined by attributes of profession and social status. But female portraiture in Italian Renaissance art was not meant to be a direct representation of the individual. The purposes of most female portraiture include commemorative works, donor portraits, and images of ideal beauty. When used as a commemorative portrait, lineage and wealth were seen as the most important. Women were often painted in honour of marriage, shown by the age and costume of many subjects of portraits. Other than at the time of marriage, women were rarely seen on display as publicity was necessary to legitimize marriage during the period, and men wished to display wealth and prestige.

Many depictions of women were also seen in religious paintings as donors. In Northern Italian courts, donors were portrayed in finery to publicly advertise their wealth. In other courts of Italy, this practice was frowned upon, and female donors were pictured in dark attire with heads covered in white cloth. The costume of a woman in portrait marked their parental and marital identity, and because costume and jewellery conveyed such a large amount of information, artists often focused on the wardrobe as much as the woman, who was considered to be a piece of property herself anyway.

As said before, the women pictured in the portraits of the Italian Renaissance were not often portrayed as specific individuals but as generally ideal women who shared similar facial features with the subject of the portrait. Examples of desired physical traits include a high, round forehead, plucked eyebrows, blond hair, fair skin, rosy cheeks, red lips, white teeth and dark eyes. This is shown in many portraits where they may memorialize different individual women, the images appear to differ only slightly, with many showing equal proportion and perfect symmetry in addition to the other features mentioned. In addition to physical beauty, women were expected to uphold the high moral standards of the time. The virtuous qualities most patrons and artists aimed to portray include humility, piety, charity, obedience, and chastity. The Italian phrase virtutem forma decorat, or ‘beauty adorns virtue,’ shows the common belief in Italian Renaissance society that ideal moral characteristics must be present for women to possess physical beauty, and therefore it was considered that outward appearance was a reflection of inner beauty.

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