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4 - Netherlandish Female Portraiture in Context

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 November 2022

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Summary

Abstract

The term Netherlandish portraiture is associated with a type of three-quarter view that became popular in the early fifteenth century among the wealthy community of the Duchy of Burgundy, a territory roughly comparable with Belgium today. Its quasi-photographic effects were achieved through the slow-drying process of their oil medium, used for the first time on panel. This style brought to maturity a pre-existing trend towards naturalistic physiognomy and, this chapter argues, encapsulated the complex social identity of the short-lived Duchy. Central to this analysis are the female likenesses, which have never received attention as a group. The subjects’ miens and the muted colours of their clothing create an aura of solemnity that is enhanced by the neutral backgrounds. I propose to call them “icons of humility,” a term that paraphrases the description of female followers of the evangelical group Devotio Moderna, popular in the region. The discussion includes technical, contextual, and taxonomical considerations which have hitherto been unresolved.

Key words: Devotio Moderna – Flanders – Gothic – Netherlandish – Three-quarter Portraiture

The term Netherlandish portraiture conjures a type of likeness in three-quarter facial angle. It became popular in the fifteenth century among the wealthy urban communities of the Duchy of Burgundy, a territory that is roughly comparable with Belgium today. It is on autonomous panels, and in diptychs and triptychs with devotional purposes. It appears so veristic that it could be described as photographic. The slow-drying oil medium, which until then had not been applied on panels, allowed painters to attain such naturalistic results that they still distract us from the disproportionally large head of the figures in comparison with their torso, especially in the early autonomous examples. Similarly, in many of these portraits the nose, eye, and lip corner of the less exposed side of the face are flattened, perhaps to help recognise the sitters, as has been suggested. These images confirm the maturity of an existing trend towards more naturalistic physiognomy. They have survived in large quantities, and in the individual portraits the subjects’ miens and the muted colours of their clothing seem to purposefully create an aura of solemnity that is often enhanced by neutral backgrounds.

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Chapter
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Netherlandish and Italian Female Portraiture in the Fifteenth Century
Gender, Identity, and the Tradition of Power
, pp. 119 - 142
Publisher: Amsterdam University Press
Print publication year: 2022

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