Page 49 of the course notes details questions you should ask yourself when looking at portraits & self portraits.

“When you look at a portrait, try and find out something about the sitter so that you can judge how the artist has interpreted their character. Focus on two or three personalities. As well as looking at how the artist has portrayed the sitter, think about where the picture was originally displayed. How big is it? Who was it for? Who would have seen it?” p49 Course Guide

I’m planning on visiting the National Gallery for my visit (p46) so I thought I’d pre-browse their excellent website for some portraits to focus on. Luckily for me the terms of use of their website allows use of the images for research and study as long as they are properly credited. eg: “Leonardo, The Virgin of the Rocks, 1491-1508 Photo © The National Gallery, London”.

Costanza Caetani

Style of Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1449 - 1494 Costanza Caetani probably about 1480-90 Tempera and oil on wood, 57.2 x 37.5 cm Salting Bequest, 1910 NG2490 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG2490
Style of Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1449 – 1494
Costanza Caetani
probably about 1480-90
Tempera and oil on wood, 57.2 x 37.5 cm
Salting Bequest, 1910
http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG2490. Photo © The National Gallery, London

“The sitter, identified in the inscription as a member of the Medici family, was born in about 1469 and by 1489 had married a prominent Florentine citizen. The flowers and jewels (a pendant and three finger rings on a bolster) may well refer to her betrothal.
The painting has in the past been attributed to the young Fra Bartolommeo, when he was much influenced by Domenico Ghirlandaio.” National Gallery, (2016a)

This portrait, Costanza Caetani, is of a woman from the famous Medici family in Florence, wealthy patrons to the arts. The first thing I notice about this painting is how big her head is in portion to her body. Is this a style or did she just have a really large bonce? She looks at the viewer with almost a challenge as if to say ‘so what my head is big’.

The background is intriguing, obviously some sort of interior with large window views onto the countryside, presumably to balance to composition, but why the writing? Was it there in real life (unlikely) if not then what does it mean? MED seems to be highlighted (for Medici?). Unless this is the inscription mentioned in the gallery text (to be honest I’d assumed the inscription to be on the back of the painting but maybe this is it), in Latin?  The gallery text mentions the pendant and rings before her but leaves out the other items, pins and the little thimble. I suspect these must indicate something too, a seamstress or hat maker perhaps? Also, I find it interesting that she isn’t wearing the pendant (if it does, in fact represent her betrothal) and has a simple string-like necklace around her neck. Seems like the painting raises more questions than it answers.

I did some more internet digging and found this interesting article from the Guardian, apparently the inscription says “Costanza de’ Medici, wife of Giovanni Francesco di Ser Francesco de’ Caetani”. Apparently the blob of grey on the right hand side which I was struggling to identify is a dog! Which, alongside the flowers, pendant and in fact pins, all allude to her marriage.

“But her Medici face is more intriguing than her marital status. She has recognisable family features: her big uplifted face resembles the pensive Lorenzo and proud Giuliano de’ Medici as portrayed by Botticelli in his Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi (c1475).” (Jones, 2003)

So this is where it gets confusing, because I looked up ‘Adoration of the Magi’ by Botticelli and there are several webpages about the museum which show different paintings! I tracked down the official Uffizi website to see if I could see the right one. The photos of the catalogue search is all in Italian but it seemed to have a reference to a painting that looked like the one in this link, which helpfully also identifies Lorenzo and Giuliano from the crowd. I guess there might be some resemblance but its very tricky to tell with the bad reproductions I could find online. Now I see what all the fuss is about with regard to checking the integrity of your sources though because you could end up looking at the wrong image.

Since the Medici family was so famous in Florence at the time, the sitter would have probably been well known too. However the frame (damaged though it is) looks quite simple and the size isn’t very large so perhaps this was a personal portrait just to be seen by the family?

The Painter’s Father


After Albrecht Dürer, 1471 - 1528 The Painter's Father 1497 Oil on lime, 51 x 40.3 cm Bought, 1904 NG1938 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1938
After Albrecht Dürer, 1471 – 1528
The Painter’s Father
Oil on lime, 51 x 40.3 cm
Bought, 1904
http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1938. Photo © The National Gallery, London

“The painter’s father was a Nuremberg goldsmith of Hungarian origin. Dürer had already painted him seven years earlier, in 1490.

Several versions of the portrait are known. This one is probably the picture presented to Charles I by the City of Nuremberg in 1636. Although the face is quite skilfully painted, the painting is probably a copy after a lost original by Dürer.” National Gallery, (2016b)


Initial thoughts, again, this one isn’t very large, perhaps also a family portrait originally before it was presented to the king (!) a few centuries later (according to the gallery caption). This man has a rather stern look, it makes me wonder what sort of relationship Dürer had with his dad. Perhaps it was disapproval, but he is sitting for a portrait (unless this was done from memory). He has on a rather austere hat and a dull brown cloak but maybe that was all the rage in the 1400s?

When you zoom in, it looks almost like a pencil drawing in the shading on the face. This one also has an inscription at the top, with the date and not sure what the rest says, perhaps thats how they know its his father? Also, there is a number, 208, at the bottom right on his sleeve. The background is a funny red texture, almost like its just been blocked in and is in fact not finished yet. There’s some red around his eyes which this sets this off but I’m not sure if its supposed too.

There are a couple of links from the NG page for further study (here and here) so I checked these out next. The first is a really interesting article explaining why they think its a fake Dürer but actually the one the King received and the evidence supporting that theory. They mention that the eye is not up to his usual realistic style and that the painting has used some colours he would not usually have used. Also, the red background is significant as this had been applied thickly, and quickly and had cracked. None of Dürer’s other works are like this.  I also noted that in the self portrait that they are comparing it with, Dürer is wearing a rather snazzy outfit so perhaps the dull clothes do have some bearing on how the father is being portrayed? The second link is where the theory for the first link originated I think. A (much dryer) in depth paper by Susan Foister given at the conference ‘Albrecht Dürer and his Legacy’, British Museum, London, 21 March 2003. This paper is full of ‘if’s’ and ‘possibly’s’ but essentially laying out the theory that the painting might be a fake but still have been the one presented to the king.

As interesting as this all is it didn’t really answer my questions, however if it is a fake/copy then a lot of the questions become moot because the artist is copying another artist.


National Gallery. (2016a) Costanza Caetani At: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/style-of-domenico-ghirlandaio-costanza-caetani
(Accessed on 14 January 16)

Jones, J. (2003) ‘Costanza Caetani, Fra Bartolommeo (c1480-90)’ In: The Guardian [online] At: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2003/dec/20/art
(Accessed on 14 January 16)

Mediateca di Palazzo Medici Riccardi. (2009) ‘Adoration of the Magi’, by Sandro Botticelli At: http://www.palazzo-medici.it/mediateca/en/schede.php?id_scheda=318
(Accessed on 14 January 16)

Polo Museale Fiorentino. (2016) Digital Archives of the Polo Museale Fiorentino At: http://www.uffizi.firenze.it/en/archivi/
(Accessed on 14 January 16)

National Gallery. (2016b) After Albrecht Dürer, The Painter’s Father At: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/after-albrecht-durer-the-painters-father
(Accessed on 14 January 16)

National Gallery. (2010) The Painter’s Father At: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/research/the-painters-father
(Accessed on 16 January 16)

Foister. (2003) ‘Dürer’s Nuremberg Legacy: The case of the National Gallery portrait of Dürer’s father’’ In British Museum Occasional Paper 130 (PDF 301k), Conference ‘Albrecht Dürer and his Legacy’, British Museum, London, 21 March 2003. p1-8


3 thoughts on “Portraits”

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