Portraits have been on my mind recently. Here’s one of Maria Portinari which is part of an altarpiece painted when she was about 14, just after her marriage to Tommaso Portinari in 1470 (click on the image to be taken to one you can look at more closely):
And here’s another portrait of Maria with her daughter by a different artist, also part of an altarpiece and painted around seven years later:
The difference in Maria’s appearance is striking. The question is, to what can this be attributed? The answer can only be a guess. One author suggests that she has aged considerably because of constant childbirth (which is believable!). But I find suppositions and conclusions like this troubling when they’re stated as facts. Lorne Campbell in Renaissance Portraits says that because Hugo Van der Goes “does not hesitate to stress the ugly nose and records tendons and bones which Memlinc ignores,” his portrait of Maria, “must be a considerably more truthful and less idealised likeness than Memlinc’s.” Ok, sure. I guess that we have to draw conclusions. It’s human nature. But we just don’t know how much to attribute to artistic style and to the intentions of the artist and/or patron. And really, ugly nose? Like so much about portraits, it depends on your outlook doesn’t it? You could say that her nose adds character to her face, or you could say it’s beautiful. Or you could also say something like these words by movie director Pedro Almodovar, “Even though I love my mother, I didn’t want to make an idealized portrait of her. I’m fascinated more by her defects — they are funnier than her other qualities.”
Portraits can be microcosms of a time and place, and this is what I find so fascinating about them. Sure, it’s fun to think about the sitters, and what they may have been thinking (why is she smiling in the earlier portrait?), or what their personalities may have been like. But we can also learn about what was important to the Portinaris and to people like them at the time. This short article about the Memling portraits from the Met will give you a taste.
The Portinari Altarpiece, which includes the later portrait of Maria, can also be seen as a microcosm of Northern Renaissance painting. The patrons and their saints, the landscape, the subject matter, and the symbolism are all representative of the time and place. The symbolism in particular is worth reading a little bit about if you’re interested. The animal behind Maria in the Portinari Altarpiece, for example, is a dragon, the attribute of St. Margaret (you can see her red gown) who stands above the dragon. If you want more, try this google book: Early Netherlandish Triptychs.
Just for fun, I’ll leave you with the accompanying portraits of Maria’s husband, Tommaso Portinari, from each altarpiece. I’m reminded of this quote by the artist James Abott McNeill Whistler: “It takes a long time for a man to look like his portrait.”