Leonardo da Vinci

The National Gallery Washington looks to Leonardo and the women of the Renaissance

Seeing the true face of Florence

Hard on the heels of the exhibitions on Rembrandt’s women and Picasso’s erotic drawings of women, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC takes up the theme of famous artists and their women. Their exhibition, “Virtue and beauty: Leonardo’s ‘Ginevra de’ Benci’ and Renaissance portraits of women”, runs until 6 January. Supplemented by works loaned by institutions worldwide, the exhibition is mainly made up from the museum’s permanent collection to survey the rise of female portraiture in Florence from about 1440 to about 1540, looking in particular at the emergence of images of women from the merchant, rather than aristocratic, class. Forty-seven works are on display: mostly portrait panels—supplemented by a number of medals, drawings and marble busts—by artists such as Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, Verrocchio, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Bronzino, as well as Leonardo, represented by the portrait invoked as a crowd-puller in the exhibition’s title (right), as well as three other of his works (including a drawing loaned by The Queen and another by the Ashmolean). By way of comparison, portraits by Rogier van der Weyden (left) and Petrus Christus are shown.The arrangement is loosely chronological, subdivided by medium, and starts with ruler portraits, then continues with early Florentine profiles, medals, Leonardo, Northern portraits, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, life drawings, and concludes with early 16th-century portraits. The curator, David Alan Brown, points out in the catalogue (Princeton University Press) that scholars have for some time studied the phenomenon of Renaissance women’s portraits and that this exhibition is the first time the subject has been displayed to a larger audience. He points out that portraits were not concerned psychologically to show the “inner woman” and were, in line with literary conventions, highly idealised (all the women have long necks, golden hair, pearly skin, sparkling blue eyes, rosy lips and cheeks) because the patrons’, artists’ and sitters’ concerns were more to convey the moral and social values of virtue and beauty than individuality, physical likeness and personality. Although indebted to feminism, the organisers do not take a feminist line and, while there are no surprises here in terms of hitherto unseen works or brilliantly new ideas, the show is carefully constructed and should enable the viewer to take a fresh look at some familiar faces.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The National Gallery, Washington: Leonardo and the Renaissance'