Friday, December 7, 2012

10 Noteworthy Portraits of Women


My blogging friend Yvette of In So Many Words recently posted on 10 female portraits she'd love to own. I don't have enough wall space for 10 more portraits, but I thought today I'd share 10 portraits of women that I enjoy studying (the portraits, I mean!). We'll look at them in the order they were painted.

topofart.com

This is a portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni, painted by Ghirlandaio in 1488. Giovanna was a young noblewoman who died in childbirth that same year. The painting is rich in detail, and yet has a flatness that appeals to me for its very graphic quality. The beautifully modeled face contrasts with straight lines and simple shapes that could make a cubist's heart skip a couple of beats. I view this as a very modern painting, along the line of an early work by David Hockney.

en.wikipedia.org

Leonardo da Vinci painted Cecilia Gallerani circa 1490, about two years after Ghirlandaio's portrait of Giovanna. Cecilia was the 16-year-old mistress of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, for whom Leonardo produced many designs ranging from battlements to party decorations. The ermine is most certainly symbolic — as well as representing purity, it was the Duke's heraldic animal. I like this portrait for that graceful hand, and it's interesting that Leonardo mirrored the ermine's paw with equal grace. Few people have painted more beautiful hands than da Vinci, though, as one looks more closely at the painting, it really isn't the hand of a 16-year-old!

nga.gov

Lady With a Red Hat was painted by Johannes Vermeer in 1666, and came to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. through the collection of Andrew Mellon. I have a hunch that Vermeer was an alien time-traveler who ended up in the Netherlands with a knowledge of light from beyond our own time. His incredible highlights and diffused edges suggest that he studied optics and perhaps even used optic devices to which his contemporaries were not privy.

painting-palace.com

Here's a portrait of Mrs. Ezekiel Goldthwait (Elizabeth Lewis), painted by John Singleton Copley in 1771. This painting has special meaning for me because as a young artist I came to the realization, through copying it, that colors always appear more vibrant when they are juxtaposed with dark neutrals. Copley's finest portraits consistently feature bright spots that leap out of very muted palettes.

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

As I look back over the portraits included so far, I notice a lot of fine fabrics. What can I say — I like luxe! And few excelled at that as well as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who painted this portrait of Princess de Broglie in 1853. Ingres' detailed rendering of satins, paisleys and jewelry made him popular in the French court, and yet he regarded portraits as the lesser of his work. Compare this image with the one of Mrs. Goldthwait, and you see that both artists rendered luxury in the bottom half of the painting and then reserved the top half for the face to pop out of simplicity. In each case, the painting is divided almost exactly in half.

sightswithin.com

By contrast, Franz Xaver Winterhalter's 1859 portrait of Countess Lamsdorff is busy-ness through and through. And yet, we are drawn — despite all the detail — to the sitter's face. How does that happen?


First, Winterhalter paints many lines in both the dress and the natural elements that converge on the face. And if that were not enough, he creates a spiral of movement around the face, sort of a visual vortex.


See how the shadow around the bottom of the dress forms an arc that moves up into the tree and around the head? Brilliant!

bob520.wordpress.com

Alphonse Mucha painted Zodiac in 1896. His compositions are interesting because he used layers of decorative detail to form essentially solid blocks of color. Lush background detail is outlined in lighter colors or thinner lines, while the portrait itself gets a heavy black outline. But even here, that outline modulates to lightness as it moves down the neck and into the neckline. Isn't it interesting to see the different ways that artists simultaneously lavish and curb detail?

click to enlarge  |  wikipaintings.org
Carl Larsson's 1906 portrait of his wife Karin is interesting in that the center of the composition is her azalea. Looking at Larsson's work, one can appreciate what a natural drawer and superb draftsman he was. It seems to me as though he must neither have used an eraser nor ever blotted a line.

Pinterest  |  Robert Sobsey

Tamara de Lempicka is one of my favorite artists — I've linked to her biography because it's such interesting reading. I've always been intrigued (and a little jealous) of artists who attain such a recognizably distinct style. This is a 1928 portrait of Arlette Boucard, daughter of Dr. Pierre Boucard, also painted by Lempicka (and an interesting story in itself). Tamara de Lempicka's work is sometimes described as "soft cubism," and I'd be hard-pressed to name anyone who surpasses in that genre. It's as though Ingres meets Leger in the form of one person.

artandopinion.tumbler.com

My final choice for this posting is this stunning portrait by Pietro Annigoni (1910 – 1988). I'm sorry to say that I can't identify the sitter — perhaps a reader can help me fill in the blank. Annigoni was highly influenced by the Italian Renaissance, and his paintings seem more a continuation of that period rather than a reinterpretation. His work often reminds me of Hans Holbein, and so it seems fitting that Annigoni was made famous worldwide by his 1956 portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.
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36 comments:

  1. Hello Mark, Each of your suggestions is unique and riveting. I'm sure that everyone will want to add one more to your list, so here is my candidate: La Schiavona by Titian. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Schiavona )

    That was always one of my favorites, and on a trip to London I unexpectedly came face-to-face with it in the National Gallery. She is brilliantly portrayed twice, but even her rendition as a colorless classical cameo cannot hide her affable nature. Her easygoing friendliness combined with some extra girth reminds me of your selection of Mrs. Goldthwait.
    --Road to Parnassus

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    1. Hello, Jim - Thank you for introducing me to La Schiavona, a Titian with which I was not familiar. That brings to mind the realization that art historians constantly call our attention to the same works, even though there may be equal merit in lesser known ones. It's not unlike radio stations that will play only one song from an artist's album! I appreciate your choice.

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  2. What a gorgeous grouping! I hadn't seen the Copley before nor heard of Annigoni shockingly enough. I can't wait to do more research on these artists!

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    1. Hi, Stefan. I think you will like the work of Annigoni. You might not recognize the name, but you've seen his stunning portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.

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  3. You've given us great material for further research and I'm sure I'll reread this post at least two more times. I love seeing things like the lines and spirals drawn on the one painting because they're things I might not immediately notice but I find interesting and helpful in the never-ending battle to master good composition.

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    1. Hello, Steve - Even though I majored in the arts, in many ways, I'm self-taught, and so I spend a lot of time studying compositions. A good composition is halfway to a good painting — well, maybe a quarter-way!

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  4. I like the way you have shown portraits across the ages from the Renaissance through to the 20th century.
    I do admire the way a painter such as Tamara de Lempicka captures so well the atmosphere of their period, this is definitely a painting from the 1920/30s.
    My I be permitted to include a portrait that I like - Vanity by Frank Cadogan Cowper, he was acknowledged as the last of the Pre-Rhaphelites.
    The Annigoni portrait shows a lady with an aristocratic bearing. She shows a resemblance to Edwina Countess Mountbatten of Burma, but this is just shot in the dark.

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    1. Hello, Rosemary - Frank Cadogan Cowper painted a couple of portraits entitled "Vanity," and I like them both. I see how the Annigoni portrait resembles Edwina Mountbatten, but I still can't find a proper link.

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    2. I am not familiar with the works of Annigoni apart from the Queen and the Princess Margaret portraits however I did do a bit of a search online and found this under an identical image:

      哈佛德.瓦登女士的肖像 40X50cm 1950年作

      which google translator gives as:

      The portrait of Halford. Wadden Ms. 40X50cm 1950,

      Kirk

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    3. Thanks, Kirk. I have found your link, Kirk, though when I do an image search under the names in English, I come up short. But I will keep looking.

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  5. Dear Mark,
    I do enjoy reading your blog.

    How strange that you should have a posting that includes John Singleton Copley. I had not heard of this artist before and today a student of mine has chosen him for a project so we had been discussing him and his work. I get home, read your blog and there is JSC popping up again!

    I like this painting. I like the way that Mrs. Goldthwait's hand is poised over those apples and peaches(?) as if to say 'these are mine so keep your hands off!'

    As a fellow lover of luxe I entirely appreciate your choices. Winterhalter is a favourite of mine too as is Lempicka and the great Carl Larsson but if I had to choose a favourite it would be Giovanna Tornabuoni - what a profile!

    I think this has inspired me to consider my own list of top 10 noteworthy portraits of women for a later post...


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    1. Dear Kirk,

      Thanks for your kind opening comment - it is the stuff that keeps this show-and-tell going!

      Your student has chosen an amazing artist for his project. To fully appreciate John Singleton Copley, one should know that he lived in colonial America with very little good art as examples to inspire him. As a young man, he created beautiful portraits, and because he had nothing to use for comparison, he was uncertain of his own extraordinary talent. He sent one of his portraits to England via a ship captain, where the artists there were — to use the current vernacular — blown away.

      Copley moved to England during the Revolutionary War (because his family were Tories) and studied there with Benjamin West. My favorite works by Copley remain his early pieces.

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  6. Interesante! muy interesante! Lo guardo para mis alumnos!

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    1. Gracias, Daniel, maestro de la fotografía!

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  7. Mark, Annigoni's portrait of the young Queen is my favorite portrait of Elizabeth. But I've liked most of Annigoni's work and have several paintings by him on my various art Pinterest boards.

    I like all your choices, the Ghirlandaio one was on my collecting list and might have been on my final too. (I always collect many paintings in a file and THEN make the final choice.) I love Ingres as well though I had a different portrait picked out. :)

    As for Tamara de Lempicka, well, I did post her paintings a while back. I love that her style is instantly recognizable and SO vividly unique and of its time. She captured a world.

    Of course, who can argue with Vermeer? But this painting has been in doubt on and off - has it finally been accepted as a true Vermeer? It's always been my favorite but I hesitated to say it was an ACTUAL Vermeer. I read somewhere that Vermeer actually used a 'black box' something or other which helped with perspective. Maybe it helped with the lighting as well.

    And of course, I'm a big fan of Carl Larsson...I think you know that. :)

    Great post, Mark. Nice to get your point of view.

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    1. Hi, Yvette,

      That Vermeer is not my favorite of his paintings, but I thought that it fit the category of this posting better than others, and illustrated his particular style well. The Vermeer that I'd actually want to own is "The Artist's Studio." (But if you were to give me the lady in the red hat, I wouldn't refuse it!)

      I'm sure you've looked at the books on the WWII forgeries of Vermeer and, like me, wondered how anyone could possibly have mistaken them for Vermeers.

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    2. I saw some of the alleged Vermeers and just shook my head that anyone ANYONE could have mistaken their awfulness for the Dutch master's work.

      But I'm thinking that Vermeer's work was not as well known or familiar or, for that matter, appreciated way back when.

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  8. I too am a great fan of Annigoni, and especially of his 1956 portrait of the Queen. I have tried to see it in London, but as it's privately owned, it is quite difficult to get an appointment when you don't live there. This year it was loaned to the National Portrait Gallery as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations,

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2145219/Two-Queen-Elizabeth-works-reunited-The-National-Portrait-Gallery-25-years-apart.html

    Unfortunately I was not able to be in London during this period, and it has now reverted to its owners.

    I am lucky enough to own a print of a sketch of the Queen's portrait, which is signed by Annigoni:

    http://corcol.blogspot.com/2008/09/pleasure-of-annigoni.html

    http://corcol.blogspot.com/2010/02/regal-recess.html

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    1. Dear Columnist,

      Thanks for including those links. I like the regal nook that you've created, which does the justice to your Annigoni sketch that it deserves. It's great to have such an alcove that lends itself so well to a dramatic display.

      I also enjoyed the link to the commemorative exhibition. I was quite taken with the portrait by Justin Mortimer, yet another artist new to me!

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  9. Thank you for showing all of these treasures, I keep coming back to the Winterhalter though it's not from an era I find particulary interesting. Thanks for showing us how to see the Countess.

    I have sent you a link in return

    http://archive.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/exhibitions/archived/2010/bunny/

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    1. smr - I enjoyed the link to Rupert Bunny — though I personally would never get that close to a swan!

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  10. I might suggest this self portrait by Romaine Brooks.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romaine_Brooks

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    1. The National Museum of Women in the Arts had an amazing Romaine Brooks show about 10 years ago. It was incredible and very powerful!!
      Loi

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  11. A wonderful post, Mark. And wonderful selections....many new to me. I'm only familiar with the paintings from Leonardo da Vinci and Johannes Vermeer. I love the portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter! That luminous silk!! Breathtaking and so lavish!
    Loi

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    1. Dear Loi - I'm guessing that now that you've seen these artists, you'll excperience that strange phenomenon whereby they present themselves to you at every turn — it happens to me all the time!

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  12. Dear Mark, while admiring your beautiful women I was reminded of one of my art professors who spent an entire semester droning on and on about John Copley.

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    1. Dear Gina, Copley is a great artist to study, and I've learned a lot by looking at his paintings. His "Boy With a Squirrel" is definitely one painting I'd enjoy to living with.

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    1. Thank you, Kevin! All credit goes to my squirrely friends.

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  14. I love this concept- I am going to come up with a list-a wonderful exercise. I would find a number of your choices tempting-I could not ever miss having a Liotard. I will send you my results in the new year--- and again-I love your post about the collection of "found" ornaments from your parents travels.

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    1. Dear Gaye - I will be looking forward to your choices! It's a great exercise. Sometimes I look through home magazines with the same intention and it's surprising how much more attentive one becomes looking at a magazine that way. One really goes into the rooms.

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  15. I so enjoyed these noteworthy portraits of women and those of men you posted most recently on blog. The Da Vinci is fascinating..the hand, clearly not of a sixteen year old. Why? The ermine's legs and paws, strong but pet gentle; the lady's hand in control, strong and also gentle, but, clearly the one in control.

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    1. It's an interesting question, which I asked myself. For one thing, I think the hand is too large!

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  16. Oh from the Annigoni to Ghirlandaio to The Da Vinci studied many many times. I an always entranced by the luxe fabrics and how they are painted the silks, furs, how they do come alive!
    Some of the faces look lit from within. Thank you Mark!

    Love and Hugs
    Karena

    Art by Karena

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    1. Dear Karena - Do you know what always amazes me about paintings that predate photography? It's that artists studied nature closely enough to successfully paint things like moving water!

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