Defining Beauty for Men and Women in Portraiture

Defining Beauty for Men and Women in Portraiture

" ... A thing of beauty is a joy forever :

It's loveliness increases ;

it will never Pass into nothingness ... "

What is beauty? Seemingly a continually evolving and infinitely elusive ideal - mankind has been obsessed with the concept of beauty throughout the ages. Portraiture, as an essential channel of visual communication, has traditionally been the medium through which definitions of beauty are graphically expressed. Particularly in the Renaissance where portraiture often served celebratory or commemorative purposes, it was crucial that portraits were accepted as aesthetically pleasing reflections of the social ideals of the time. Hence by comparing and contrasting a range of different portraits of depicting men and women of the Renaissance such as Titian’s La Bella, Bronzino’s Eleonora de Medici, Sofonisba Anguissola’s Self Portrait, Vasari’s Alessandro de Medici, Bronzino’s Cosimo de Medici as Orpheus and Pedro Berruguete’s Portrait of Federico da Mentelfeltro, viewers can gain an understanding of the conceptual differences in definitions of masculine and feminine beauty during this period.

Titian’s La Bella – Portrait of a Woman in a Blue Dress (1536) is a captivating example of Renaissance ritratto (portraiture) demonstrating ideals of feminine beauty. It presents the image of a vibrant young woman. With smooth, light skin tone and delicate rounded face the woman is clearly defined as an exceptional beauty. Framed at a slight angle to the picture frame, La Bella emerges from the dark neutral background with subtly averted gaze, at once both inviting and refrained. Through the conflict of La Bella’s seductive yet submissive presentation, the portrait captures the essence of Renaissance female beauty perfectly, presenting the mildly sensual nature of the woman’s image as a joy in itself.

To complement her dignified demeanour, La Bella wears an amazingly intricate and extravagant blue gown. For a period when women were without a public voice and remained dependant on signs of visual identity such as clothing and jewellery, such a display of finery implies significant wealth and social status. Considering the seductive rendering of the fabric utilising costly lapis lazuli, it is clear Titian desired to present an image of ultimate feminine loveliness.

The portrait is free from overt art...

... middle of paper ... often used as vital means of propaganda communication. Beyond these conventional images we have such images as Cosimo de Medici as Orpheus and Self Portrait by Sofonisba. Which, although rare, were recognised as beautiful portraits of the time, and present and much more unusual and intriguing visions of beauty.

Through the exploration of this diverse range portraiture, the contrasting ideals of masculine and feminine beauty in the Renaissance have been explored. Yet overall, no matter what the gender orientation of the subject, it the discovery of such passionate and artistic talent presented which is essentially ‘beautiful’. Consequently, the grand appeal of such glorious images is still appreciated today, and will continue to delight viewers for generations to come.


Paola Tingali

Women in Italian Renaissance Art (Manchester 1997)

Geraldine A. Johnson & Sara Greico

Picturing Women in Renaissance and Baroque Italy (Cambridge 1997)

Patricia Simons

Portraiture: Facing the Subject ed Woodhall (Manchester 1997)

Lorne Campbell

Renaissance Portraits (Yale 1990)

Alison Cole

Art of the Italian Renaissance Courts (Everyman Art Library 1997)

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