In the pursuit of Realism: Portraiture and symbolism

The Renaissance period (1300-1602) brought about artists, such as Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael who had pushed the sciences into more realistic perceptions, by studying everyday subject matters including nature: “These men had not only made great advances in naturalism – through investigation of anatomy and emotional expressionism- but had brought a fresh approach to the old forms of religious subject matter.”(The world of Leonardo, p14), people were moving on from old fashioned folk styles (although religious artwork was still being created, there was a prominent change) and pushed the world into more intellectual studies based on the real world, focussing on the detail of everyday subjects.  Also portraiture soon became a thing whereas previously was only for religious and royal faces. Portraiture was used as a status symbol, and was created for (wealthy) families and would typically contain symbolism to represent their family name(could be used for advertising their knowledge or power).

Leonardo Da Vinci revolutionised portraiture, whereas portraits before him were dull and frozen in nature, typically completely addressing the viewer and so were not very inspiring. Leonardo’s portrait of Cecilia Gallerani: “Lady with an Ermine” (c.1483) is rich with symbolism and is great example of a portrait with a pose that feels more natural: “her face is keenly attentive and intelligent, her fingers long and sensuous, those of a musician and a voluptuary.”(The World of Leonardo, p77), the painting suggests a sexual desire as she faces away from the viewer, with the Ermine in a twisting pose in her arms as she strokes it with gentle fingers, symbolising lust and pregnancy. The painting is a pleasure to view, as it contains such delicate detail typical of Leonardo, however has been altered slightly by lesser talented artists after him.

Jan Van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini portrait”(c.1434) is also rich in symbolism, including how the painting itself is wholly a symbol of marriage and childbirth, even though the relationship of the couple featured is unclear: “Giovanni and Costanza had no recorded children and Costanza had died by 1433, the year before the portrait was painted. Is this a memorial to Costanza, who might have died in childbirth? Artists liked to pose women in a pregnant stance, whether they were or not, as fertility was an essential quality in a wife.”( Costanza could either have been pregnant, or is just depicted to be to symbolise fertility- a desired trait, especially for wealthy families to produce male children to carry on the family name. I enjoy how the painting is filled with symbolism, as the room is littered with rare items such as oranges and a mirror (that might not noticeably stand out at first glance), to emphasise their wealth, as well as the choice of rich colours such as reds and blues. Jan Van Eyck was an arrogant character and added a personal touch to the painting- a signature. The mirror contains lettering which translates as “Van Eyck was here 1434”.

An influence of Van Eyck is the incredible Hieronymus Bosch, whose artwork is disturbingly similar to modern day surrealism.  As a reaction to the Renaissance’s realistic approach to artwork, Bosch created paintings of intriguing fantasy worlds. I find the artwork inspiring and the complementary opposites of horrific and beautiful is nicely balanced, however both mysteriously imaginative. The figures displayed in the busy paintings each seem to tell their own story across the artwork, letting your eyes wander to see every section of the panels to take in all the detail. The paintings are well done and the subject matters are painted realistically, however in unrealistic situations or of fantasy creatures and demons. Fantasy features like this in the paintings, including melting or floating objects, screams surrealism and inspired those in the surrealist movement.

The imagery is difficult to interpret and has been debated for years. Attempts of analysis by those of different disciplines about the imagery seen in Bosch’s artwork has been long discussed. Any sort of original meanings have obviously been lost over time, although some symbolism can be relatable to spirituality in Christian ideology or of folk-tales: “… the supposedly enigmatic character of Bosch’s work, which has compelled many people to seek out and communicate a solution. This has given rise to some intriguing theories, but also to some bizarre ones.” (Hieronymus Bosch, p8) There are theories of Bosch being members of cults or using drugs, but there is no way to uncover the true mental state of Bosch. However, he is widely admired for his work. “The Garden of earthly Delights”(c.1510) is made up of panels of several “gardens”, for example a heavenly garden of Eden or of a chaotic hell. Each painting is filled with medieval symbolism.

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (1510)

As the 17th century dawned, portraiture is much more common around families and to lay people who could afford it. Artists had the problem of whether to make the subject matter be as physically beautiful as possible to please them, or be as realistic as possible.



Koldeweij, Jos., Vandenbroeck, Paul., Vermet, Bernard(2001)Hieronymus Bosch. The complete Paintings and Drawings. NAi Publishers (p8)

Wallace, Robert(1966) The World of Leonardo. Time-Life  International. (p14 and p77)


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