Did the Renaissance invent individuality in portraiture?

I am continually dismayed by the narrow cultural view of esteemed art critics.  First there was the New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl blithely acknowledging his near-total ignorance of Islamic art and — alas, as I wrote here — illustrating it in his review of the new Islamic wing at the Met Museum.  Now there is art dealer and scholar Andrew Butterfield writing in the New York Review of Books (subscription required) about another exhibit at the Met, “The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini,” of which he says, “The show of Renaissance portraits now on view in New York is of staggering beauty and revelatory importance.”  Beauty, undoubtedly, but what is this revelation?  Butterfield writes:

The show reaffirms the thesis, first presented in 1860 by Jacob Burckhardt in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, that one of the dominant characteristics of the epoch was “The Development of the Individual”—to use the title of a section of the book. Burckhardt famously said:

Man [previously] was conscious of himself only as member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation—only through some general category. In Italy this veil first melted into air; an objective treatment and consideration of the state and of all things of this world became possible.  The subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis; man became a spiritual individual, and recognized himself as such.

Butterfield then goes on to say what this means to the experience of the current exhibit:

[O]ne cannot help but be struck by the vitality, distinctiveness, and particularity of the men and women portrayed.  They gaze at you and beckon to you, clamoring for your attention…Such urgent declarations of self and calls for recognition are unlike anything that had come before in European visual art, even in the classical era.  The soundness of Burckhardt’s insight seems certain.  At the same time, however, the show offers a corrective to this idea.  In Burckhardt’s formulation, the individual was seen in distinction from the group.  But in the exhibition what we often view are individuals portrayed as the preeminent and exemplary representatives of groups.

So, the revelatory aspect of this exhibit is that it confirms the Renaissance innovation of individuality in portraiture — that is, depiction of commoners in a naturalistic way — but adds the dimension of connecting these individuals back to their group identities. To underscore this, Butterfield contends:

So portraits had existed before [the Renaissance], but it was only in the fifteenth century that independent images of actual persons other than rulers and religious figures began to be made in large numbers.

But this claim is demonstrably untrue; indeed, it is demonstrated elsewhere in the Met Museum itself.  In gallery 138, there hangs a mummy portrait from Egypt painted on wood of the boy Eutyches that dates to AD 100-150 that is as ‘vital, distinctive, and particular’ a representation of an ‘actual person’ as anything in 15th century Italy.

This is just one of what are known as the Fayum portraits, from the oasis in Egypt where many of them were discovered.  Their connection to European art is well established — they were painted during Egypt’s Roman period and the clothes and accessories are a record of provincial Roman styles — and in their frank, profoundly human representation they appear astonishingly contemporary.  Writing in 1860, Jacob Burckhardt can be forgiven, perhaps, for not making more of the individuality of the Fayum portraits: though a few funerary portraits from Fayum were discovered in the early-19th century the large-scale discoveries mostly began in the late-19th century, some decades after the publication of Buckhardt’s book The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.  But the Fayum portraits today are well known and their individuality, in the sense that Burckhardt and Butterfield mean it, is long recognized.  Not, apparently, by Butterfield.


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