A Painting a Day: Boldovinetti's Portrait of a Lady in Yellow (c.1465)

Today's painting: Alesso Boldovinetti's Portrait of a Lady in Yellow (c.1465), one of the great Renaissance portraits. The Renaissance represented a rebirth of Western art, particularly in the idea that a person could represent an artistic ideal, rather than a religious dogma. While most portraits depicted in the Renaissance were of the nobility, and thus reflected a kind of secular hagiography, it's still a great leap from centuries of painting Madonnas and saints to suddenly see a woman--and in this case, an anonymous one. We don't know who this woman is, though scholars have made conjectures for some time. But ultimately that's not important. What IS important is how Boldovinetti (great name!) wanted to capture the art in a human face. For our faces are masks, particularly when immortalized for the ages in oil. They represent less who we are than what we would appear to be. But an artist knows better!

To modern eyes, this is a very flat painting without obvious depth. It reminds me more of a poster print from the 19th century, or something from the art nouveau movement. Yet this is no mistake of the artist: instead of depth and realism he clearly aimed for a stylized portrait of beauty. Even so, he allows several features to shine through to make this more than a generic portrait. First off is the blinding blue of the background: different pictures reveal different shades of blue, so it's hard to tell what it really looks like in a reproduction (though by now, even the original has faded--it must have been intense back in the day). Yet the background puts us in mind of a cloudless blue sky on a searing summer day. This contrasts beautifully with the pale brightness of the woman in her subdued flesh tones and faded sunflower-colored dress. It makes her look more real and alive despite the flatness, and you could almost imagine her suddenly turning her neck and popping into life and dimension.
The pose is curiously Egyptian, a perfect profile, a trained performance. This is a woman on display (or parade) who is not asked for her opinion, or even her name (hence the anonymity of the portrait). Some commentators are keen to note that this is woman is "not a beauty," and is too severe and harsh to be considered pleasing. While it is true that her lips are held tightly and disapprovingly, this might be less for her own prejudices than her societal mask. Would such a woman be allowed to show displeasure if she wasn't encouraged to frown at the world? I think of Robert Browning's famous poem, The Last Duchess (set in this very time period), about a Duke who kills his wife because,
"...She had
A heart--how shall I say?--too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere...
...She thanked men,--good! but thanked
Somehow--I know not how--as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody's gift.
With such a husband, would you smile at anyone or look at anything beyond your own shoes? No, you would keep a stern profile and ignore the world in a mask of indifference. Only your husband and his family's gift of a "nine-hundred-years-old name" matters in this life. And maybe that's what Boldovinetti is trying to capture: the moment when a golden beauty is beaten into baser lead. Note her eyes, which don't seem jaded or critical, but wide-eyed and pure. Even the personality of her nose and chin, which far from being generic, seem personal and unique. Everything about the woman is poised and in place, but the stiff formality of her mask contrasts with her youth and--yes--beauty. Her adornments almost seem cruel and menacing, as in the stifling string of pearls, painted a curious brown/dark red color, as if representing her own blood being drained into her new family's coffers.
The flowers on the side of her arm probably represent her family's crest, either the one she was born into or the one she married into. She, in effect, is a representation of the family, not her own woman. A nobleman would hang this on the family walls with his other ancestors and say, "look at my family!" rather than "look at my wife!" However, I think Boldovinetti saw the woman beneath the family crest, and painted a young woman struggling to learn her role, even while the youth and innocence continue to shine forth. Though the mask is firmly in place, and she will never smile for you, the artist teases us about the woman's true thoughts and identity. For she's still in there, hidden away, still alive to the summer sun even if she can no longer dance and smile like a child.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for reading--it's just an exercise to give me something to write every other day or so. A lot of my writing and classes deals with art, so writing about it daily keeps my wits sharpened. Nothing like your in-depth analysis of music, but at least people can see some nice art in their feed even if they don't read. Thanks again!


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