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5 - Netherlandish or Not Netherlandish? Is That the Question?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 November 2022

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Summary

Abstract

It is often claimed that the oil medium, three-quarter format, and deceptive illusionism of Netherlandish likenesses represented a watershed between medieval and modern portraiture in Europe. Some have also proposed that this style of portraiture helped the Italians break free from the tradition of the profile format. This chapter considers how these two portrait cultures expressed fifteenth-century modernity. My reflections are rooted in the rendition of the female likenesses in relation to what I consider relevant to the enquiry: pictorial styles, use of backgrounds, and quality of spectatorship informed by my distinction between seeing-in and seeing-as. The discussion is entwined with the woman question, concluding with a critical assessment of Leonardo's Ginevra de’ Benci (1474–1478). With this work, I define the psychological relationship between women and their own imaging.

Key words: Flemish – Italian – Leonardo da Vinci – Spectatorship – Tempera

The painting of Flanders […] will generally satisfy any devout person more than the painting of Italy […]; they paint […] only to deceive the external eye […]. Their painting is of stuffs […], which they call landscapes […], without care in selecting or rejecting […]. Neither do I speak so badly of Flemish painting because it is all bad, but because it tries to do so many things at once […] so that it does not do anything really well.

With this verdict, Michelangelo (1475–1564) summarised how the Italians saw Netherlandish paintings: pregnant with religiosity and accomplished in naturalism but lacking in pictorial and conceptual synthesis. Yet, it has been claimed that the Italians owed to the Northerners key steps in the modernisation of their pictorial language, which, in portraiture, manifested in the use of the oil medium, threequarter format, and deceptive illusionism. In this chapter, I probe the signs of fifteenth-century modernity in these portrait cultures. Female portraiture is relevant to this investigation because modernity and patriarchy seems an unlikely partnership. I focus my enquiry on styles, use of backgrounds, and quality of spectatorship.

Broader considerations have provided nuance for this challenge. In Italy, the three-quarter format eclipsed the male profile in around 1450, but female likenesses in angles other than the profile appeared some twenty-five years later. Chapter Three explored the reasons for this slow uptake.

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Netherlandish and Italian Female Portraiture in the Fifteenth Century
Gender, Identity, and the Tradition of Power
, pp. 143 - 172
Publisher: Amsterdam University Press
Print publication year: 2022

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