The Rise of the True Portrait in Northern Europe

Given the increasing tendency to make the setting of the religious scene resemble the home of the patron, it may not be that surprising to find that the donors of these altarpieces and frescoes wanted their portraits to be included as well. The portraits by Hans Memling of the Portinaris are so precise and accurate in their depiction of the physiognomies and facial features that we are able to identify the Portinaris in paintings by other artists, even without initially knowing the names of those paintings. In real life, these paintings are even more detailed than they look in reproduction.  One of the characteristics of Memling's paintings, in these as well as his others, is the suggestion that Tommaso and Maria are sitting in a real, three-dimensional space and that they are leaning slightly out of it, as their hands rest on a "ledge" in front of them.  Because they are not looking at each other and because there is no background behind them, most historians believe that the portraits were once separated by a third panel containing a religious scene. If true, it would have been a fairly small altarpiece, made for private use.
Hans Memling: portrait of Tommaso Portinari, ca 1470, approx 17x13", oil on wood Memling: portrait of Maria Baroncelli Portinari (same date and dimensions)

The Early "Independent" Portrait

Jan van Eyck: The Arnolfini Double Portrait, 1434 (oil on wood; 32" x 23")

The portrait as a painting which was made just to be a portrait, as opposed to a portrayal of the donors of an altarpiece, begins to appear in the early 15th century with some of the earliest examples found in northern Europe.  The Arnolfini portrait has stimulated a great deal of interpretation, as well as a name change (previously being called the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait).  In fact, the focus of interpretation has been the question of whether the painting documents a marriage, a betrothal, or is better understood as a double portrait, falling in the class of court portraits.  Van Eyck was a noted portrait painter for the royal court, a factor which gives credibility to the idea of seeing this as a double portrait.  That does not eliminate the symbolic meaning of the clogs, the dog (faith and fidelity), the mirror (the eye of God), and other religious symbols in the painting (St. Margaret, on the corner of the chair; the scenes from the passions of Christ painted on the frame of the mirror), but it corresponds more closely to the fact that the Arnolfinis were not married in 1434 (they did not marry until 1447) and to the dominant tendency in northern paintings to find sacred meaning in "ordinary" objects.

The document interpretation has always rested on the belief that van Eyck can be seen in the mirror.  Certainly, two other figures can be made out, but it is unclear as to who they are.  Van Eyck did sign the painting right above the mirror, at the very least leaving no doubt in anyone's mind that he was the artist who made it.  Whether he intended his presence in the mirror as a witness to a legal ceremony or not, it was not unusual for aristocrats to use portrait paintings as a metaphorical document of their status.  In this painting, every object which can be identified (basically everything in the painting) is either there as a symbol of fertility, of betrothal, of faithfulness, or as a symbol of the wealth of Arnolfini.  For viewers today, besides being a brilliant work of art, the painting is a wonderful source of information as to how the merchant class lived and decorated their homes.

Rogier: Portrait of a Lady, c. 1460, oil and tempera on wood, 14x10" Rogier: Lady Wearing a Gauze Headdress, c. 1445, oil/wood

The male subject was often potrayed in the guise of his name saint. For a woman, Mary was the model. Rogier van der Weyden's portraits are more idealized and less naturalistic than either Memling's or van Eyck's. Although this reflects a difference of styles, it also relates to the difference between portraits of women and men.  We do not even know the names of the two women in the above portraits, making them less about the subjects (although it is quite apparent that the artist did use real models for those paintings) than about the proper behavior of women of a certain class.  Male portraits were also idealized, but less often in terms of their physical characteristics than in terms of making a statement about the man's position in the world.  Van Eyck, however, was far less likely to glamorize his subjects than most other artists.  Certainly, this lack of glamorization was true of the painting we believe to be his self-portrait.

Jan van Eyck: Man in a Red Turban, 1433 (self-portrait?) Petrus Christus: St. Eloy (Eligius) in His Shop, 1449

This last painting give us another example of the way in which many northern paintings united the sacred and secular world, and in this case, doing it in the context not of an altarpiece but a painting which may have been a portrait of a man who was a goldsmith.  Many historians have interpreted this painting (very convincingly) as a last judgement.  At the same time, we should not overlook the fact that the painting gives us a very vivid and detailed view of daily mercantile life, to the point of including a mirror reflection of potential customers approaching his shop.  Whether a last judgement or not, the painting is also a true "occupational" portait.  It relates the goldsmith to the saint (who was probably his name-saint), so it is occupational in the more idealized sense, in which occupation refers to his status, morality and life goals, but it also shows us the goldsmith at work and surrounded by his tools, making it an occupational portrait in a much more everyday meaning of the word "occupation."  The tendency to portray a male subject in the guise of his name saint was a common approach to the male portrait, just as it was common to use Mary as the model for female portraits.