Renaissance faces. Van Eyck to Titian


Renaissance faces. Van Eyck to Titian London, National Gallery, from 15 October 2008 to 18 January 2009. The exhibition took place (in a slightly different version) at the Prado.

1. Mino da Fiesole (1429-1484)
Niccolò Strozzi, 1454
Marble - H. 49 cm
Berlin, Skulpturensammlung, Staatliche Museum
Photo : D. Rykner

Organizing an exhibition on Renaissance portraits is an almost impossible mission. The subject is too general, often highlighted (like recently at Capodimonte in Naples), and the works are difficult to assemble given their fragile status or their importance to the museums which own them which balk (or should do so) at the idea of letting them go.

Fortunately, the National Gallery is at no loss for ideas and resources. Rather than bringing together an improbable ensemble of very well-known masterpieces from major museums and featuring only the most famous names, it has chosen a double axis. The first consists in basing itself in part on its own collection, thus avoiding the risks of transportation (the exhibition however did travel to the Prado in Madrid) while offering a meditation on the most important works. The only drawback, for the visitor who is used to seeing Holbein’s The Ambassadors, Bellini’s Portrait of the Doge Leonardo Loredan and Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Marriage in the museum halls without paying an entrance fee, is that he now will have to buy a ticket and walk down to the basement exhibition halls for the three month duration of the show. The second axis consists in rounding out the retrospective with important but little-known works. This option avoids presenting a line-up of obvious masterpieces while achieving a coherent vision of the theme under scrutiny. As the National Gallery has once again accomplished a perfect hang and museographical layout, the conclusion is definitely that this exhibition is a success.

The visit through the show is organized by themes and the museumgoer can consult a booklet which provides the key points in each section. The catalogue itself is very enjoyable, grouping essays and entries, a formula which is tending to disappear. This will not, it is true, revolutionize art history, but a reader with little knowledge of the subject will acquire the requisite elements to better understand the function of the Renaissance portrait, the problems surrounding it (resemblances, posthumous or commemorative portraits, allegorical portraits, social status of the models, etc.) as well as questions of style.

2. Tullio Lombardo (c. 1460-1532)
A Young Couple (Bacchus and Ariane), 1505-1510
Marble - 56 x 71.5 x 20 cm
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
Photo : D. Rykner

3. Leone Leoni (1509-1590) and
Pompeo Leoni (1533-1608)
Philippe II, 1549-1568
Bronze - 169 cm
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
Photo : D. Rykner


The exhibition is not limited to painting. Although the National Gallery is devoted only to this technique, it has wisely borrowed a selection of drawings and several sculptures of very fine quality. The first room displays two marbles representing respectively Niccolo Strozzi by Mino da Fiesole (ill. 1) and Francesco Sassetti, ascribed to Antonio Rossellino. The first reveals an attempt at naturalism combined with a strong influence from Antiquity. A bit further along, the marvelous double portrait by Tullio Lombardo (ill. 2) is so classical that it almost evokes an early 19th century sculpture. The highpoint of the exhibition is the group of bronzes due to Pompeo and Leone Leoni (ill. 3). The ensemble of court portraits representing Charles V and Philip II, by Leoni or by Antonis Moro, with the Portrait of Julius II by Raphaël and the one of Paul III by Titian (Naples, Capodimonte) forms an exceptional display which alone justifies a visit.

4. Quentin Metsys (1465-1530)
Old Woman, c. 1513
Panel - 64.2 x 45.5 cm
London, National Gallery
Photo : D. Rykner

5. Quentin Metsys (1465-1530)
Old Man, c. 1513
Panel - 64.1 x 45.5 cm
United States, Private Collection
Photo : D. Rykner


The exhibition was the perfect occasion to reunite the famous Old Woman by Quentin Massys with her husband (ill. 4 and 5). The first belongs to the National Gallery, the second to an American private collection. We cannot be sure, given how ugly the wife is, that her spouse is happy to be here. In any case, not as much as the visitor.
Another equally interesting juxtaposition, is that of the Domenico Ghirlandaio drawing (ill. 6) with the Portrait of the Old Man and his Grandson which it prepares. The comparison justifies having brought the painting from the Louvre where it is one of its best known pieces. Most people probably do not know that this masterpiece is not the reflection of a happy family scene observed by the painter but a posthumous portrait based on a study of the dead man. The catalogue deals at length with the widespread practice (continuing well beyond the 16th century)of portraits executed before a cadaver, and not a live model, even with the help of a mortuary mask or thanks to other sculpted, painted or drawn portraits. Even more amazingly, some works were painted from simple descriptions.

6. Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494)
Head of an Old Man, c. 1490
Silverpoint and pen, heightened with white on pink paper - 64.1 x 45.5 cm
Stockholm, Nationalmuseum
Photo : Nationalmuseum

7. Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1556)
Portrait of a Young Man (Calo Neroni), 1530
Oil on panel - 92.1 x 73 cm
Private Collection
Photo : D. Rykner


As we mentioned earlier, the exhibition offers a number of more confidential portraits (not always easy to tell as the entries do not present any historical background and only a brief bibliography), which are held in either private collections or smaller, less well-known museums. This is the case, for example, for a very beautiful panel attributed to the workshop of Just of Ghent, representing Federico da Montefeltro and his son Guidoboldo, a portrait in painted terracotta of a young boy laughing, perhaps Henry VIII attributed to Guido Mazzoni from the British royal collections and, most especially, a Portrait of a Young Man by Pontormo (ill. 7) recently rediscovered in a private collection, which is very close to the one held at the Getty Museum.

We will conclude with a remarkable Head of a Bearded Man by Domenico Beccafumi, an oil on paper. The manner is so free that it might easily be mistaken for a Romantic work. All of these discoveries make an already enjoyable exhibition all that more pleasant.

Collective work, Renaissance faces. Van Eyck to Titian, National Gallery London, 2008, 304 p., £24,95. ISBN : 978-1857094114.

Visitor information:The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square London WC2N 5DN. Tél : + 44 (0) 20 7747 2885. Ouvert tous les jours de 10 h 00 à 18 h 00, le mercredi jusqu’à 21 h 00. Entrée de l’exposition payante (le reste du musée est gratuit).

Site de la National Gallery.

Transeurope organise des séjour à Londres pour voir l’exposition


Didier Rykner, vendredi 5 décembre 2008



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