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Early Modern European Portraits and Self-Fashioning

Now seemingly ubiquitous in Western art, stand-alone portraits were in fact incredibly rare during the medieval period. Although wealthy individuals were sometimes depicted as worshippers in religious paintings [see left], they were rarely the main subjects of a work of art. This all changed during the early Renaissance, when a newfound interest in the individual and a desire to reclaim the portrait styles of antiquity encouraged the rise of the genre of Renaissance portraiture.

Early modern people placed great weight on physical appearance and believed that the character of an individual could be read from their facial features. Hooked noses, for example, might convey a hawkish personality, while a high forehead was a sure sign of intelligence. Yet portraits conveyed much more than personality; they also used common tropes to indicate the sitter's wealth, education, or social status. Portraits were one means by which a wealthy or powerful individual might stage and display his or her own identity before a public audience. Within European courts, for example, portraits played an especially crucial diplomatic role. Kings might give their allies portraits of themselves as a impressive gesture of friendship, or request miniature portraits from potential suitors. 

As economic conditions improved across Europe toward the end of the medieval period, some individuals were able to accumulate enough wealth to be able to purchase objects and clothing which enhanced their social prestige. Scholars like Steven Greenblatt have hypothesized that early modern individuals, more than their medieval counterparts, consciously used clothing, material objects, and other external indicators to develop an exterior, public persona. Nobility was no longer just a social status passed down by inheritance, but rather a state of superior style, manners, education, and grace that could be learned and performed in front of others. Castiglione’s popular Book of the Courtier (1528) was one of the first books to introduce this idea; the first manual of civility to appear during this era, it gave advice to would-be nobles on personal appearance and mannerisms. Early modern people, especially those in court circles, were aware that they could use material goods to shape, fashion and ultimately improve their identity in the eyes of other important people. Early modern portraits, within this cultural context, can thus be read as expressions of the public values of certain individuals and the classes to which they belong.

As you look through this collection, try to decipher the clues given by the artists about the wealth, social class, interests, and personality of the sitter. What types of objects and materials seem particularly significant? Does the position of the body within the portrait (profile, three-quarter, or frontal view; full-body, half-body, or bust) impact how you perceive the individual? Finally, where do you think these portraits may have been displayed, and for what purpose?

Hendrick Goltzius
William of Orange
1558 - 1616
engraving | laid paper
Museum Purchase
Jacobus Houbraken
Portrait of Francis Russel, the 2nd Earl of Bedford
engraving | paper
Museum Purchase
The upper portion of this print depicts an ornate round frame inside of which is a three quarter portrait of a man from the waist up with his left hand held to his head. The lower portion of the print depicts the base on which the frame rests decorated with a classical scene of figures in a landscape. A collection of objects including books, a mask, a crown, a tambourine and sheet music rest atop the base.
Jacobus Houbraken
Alexander Pope, Esq.
etching, engraving | wove paper
Gift of Professor Walter M. and Nesta R. Spink
Cornelis Ploos van Amstel
Portrait of a Gentleman
1726 - 1798
softground etching with roulette | cream laid paper
Museum Purchase
Giovanni Batttista Tiepolo
Caricature of a Man Standing with Outstretched Hands
1735 - 1745
pen and black ink with gray washes | off-white laid paper, mounted
Museum Purchase
Cornelis Saftleven
Standing Cavalier
1607 - 1681
black chalk | cream paper
Museum Purchase
Pier Ghezzi
A Rather Famous Neapolitan Musician (Signor Pasqualino Musico Napolitano assai noto)
17th century
pen and ink
Museum Purchase
This elegant self-portrait depicts a half-length figure of a man in three-quarters profile with his left arm resting on a stone ledge. The somber colors of his garb, consisting of a white shirt with a dark robe, is offset by luxurious details: the fur collar of his robe, the black ribbon and gold chain around his neck, the embroidered collar and cuffs of his shirt, and the three rings on his right hand. Two pink carnations appear on the ledge before him.
Bartholomäus Bruyn, the Elder
Self-Portrait with carnations
1520 - 1530
oil | panel
Museum Purchase
Hans Lautensack
Portrait of Jerome Schurstab
etching | paper
Museum Purchase
Jacques Callot
Portrait of Domenico Peri, Agriculturalist-poet
1614 - 1624
etching | paper
Gift of Jean Paul Slusser
Jacques Callot
Lady in Mask
1619 - 1629
etching | paper
Gift of J. Frederick Hoffman
Jacques Callot
Woman with Headpiece and Muff
17th century
etching, trimmed to plate mark | paper
Gift of J. Frederick Hoffman


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Part of 12 Learning Collections

American Orientalist art at the turn of the 20th century
<p>America Encounters Asia in Art</p>

American Orientalist art at the turn of the 20th century
<p>America Encounters Asia in Art</p>

American Orientalist art at the turn of the 20th century
<p>America Encounters Asia in Art</p>

58 Collection Object Sources

Lady in Blue (1981/1.320)
Daniel Heinsius (1960/2.45)
Lady in Mask (2007/2.142)
Jan Torrentius (1962/2.27)
Lady with Fan (1981/1.328)

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Last Updated

January 22, 2019 3:44 p.m.


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