For centuries the depiction of women was kept within the confines of religious, and moral, ideological imagery until the Italian Renaissance swept up the fifteenth century to enhance and entrance the majority of the elite classes in Europe. Christianity had hindered female progress with images that encompassed the traditional values of being a woman while also aligning women as virtuous Holy Mother Mary or as demonic witches who seek to seduce men for their own gain. Portraiture for one did not include women unless they were of the supreme elite. Prior to the fifteenth century when the International Gothic movement held Europe women were painted as ethereal ‘s’ shaped figures with faces indistinguishable from each other. Portrayal of men as kings, warriors and soldiers exist in huge quantities dating back to the Ancient Greek and even further, and you are much more likely to have a visual facial representation appear to be identifiable. On the other hand women, much like their opinions and voice, as much less easily allocated to a specific woman and are less frequently found amongst historical records or art. This post will focus especially on the image of women in the Renaissance since this is a time when female representation, specifically portraits, almost treble in number.
First, we must look at why the Renaissance was such a phenomenon. The fifteenth century saw a huge upheaval in socio-political order allowing for a rise in merchant classes to gain wealth and prestige. Naturally they would want to spend this money and they did abundantly. The merchant classes were the middle ground between men at the bottom of their ladder looking to make a fortune through trade and the aristocracy who rule the land from their royal or ducal coroneted thrones. The merchants wished to emulate the aristocracy in order to make the move upwards a smoother hill to climb and this included copying and influencing the arts. Up until this point in history portraits were saved for the wealthy and powerful royals who needed to be remembered in posterity for the skilled kingship but for their image. But these new found rich men of the Renaissance also wanted to gain long galleries that contained images of their family to be seen for generations to come. All of sudden portraits of men holding the symbol of their guild start to pop up, for example the early Medici clan, alongside their aristocratic brides to signal their rise to greatness if a great lord would permit such a marriage. This was all in honour of conspicuous consumption, the merchants wanted to build and design like stamping their name across it. This is why so many churches were built in Italy with their leading families name and heraldry printed on the front starting being formed, as this was the most the church would allow before extolling the sins of pride, greed or vanity. Portraits were useful, they provided a visual image of someone before a marriage, adorned the walls of a newly gilded home and commemorated those that came before. Here is why the male family leaders starting painting their wives and daughters. It exuded wealth, power and the rise in social status. There is a snag to this growth in female imagery, they are highly idealised. The Northern Renaissance that occurred in the later fifteenth century across the Netherlands depicted men and women in a warts and all concept – nothing was hidden or edited to suit the sitter. However the beginnings of the Renaissance in Italy women were airbrushed to suit the ideals of the time.
Renaissance portraits of women generally intended to convey beauty and the social role of women. 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. Much of the time women were painted within the domestic sphere of the home, this included them being hard at work sewing or spinning, or rearing their many expected children.
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.