Eye Contact

November 27, 2010

Bronzino employs visual cues to help us get to know his sitters. In this case the Florentine intellectual aristocrat he paints marks her page in a book of Plutarch’s sonnets. Detail from a Portrait of Laura Battiferri by Angelo Bronzino, 1555, 60 x 83 cms, Oil on Wood courtesy Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy

It’s next time again.
What, for you, makes a truly great portrait? Whose works do you almost always love? Do the criteria change for you between a portrait painted on canvas and a fabulous photographic portrait? What is it about portraiture that makes it more than an exercise in ego?

Queen Elizabeth II photographed in full regalia by Annie Lebovitz. Photo by Annie Leibovitz, courtesy Contact Press/NB Pictures

I had the good fortune to get some really great answers to these questions on recent travels. The first insight comes from a talented young photographer and collector, Laura Ruth Bidwell. As we walked around the Paris PHOTO show, she tossed off (as if this were the simplest insight in the world), “Give me a dark background and some window light and I’m in heaven!” I just adore it when a glorious idea like that can sum up, in one sentence, what she has been wrestling with for years.

For me, almost no one in the history of art does a portrait better than Bronzino. So imagine my delight when I learned one of my favorite new museums, the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, was doing a definitive show on this sixteenth century Italian painter who lived, mostly in Florence, from 1503 to 1572. He was a pupil of Pontormo and became one of the artists the Medici family favored with their patronage.

Rotondo of Saint Matthew the Evangelist by Angelo Bronzino, 1525-8, Oil on panel, 76 x77.1 cm., courtesy of the Church of Santa Felicita, Capponi Chapel, Florence.

Bronzino: Artist and Poet at the Court of the Medici (September 24, 2010 – January 23, 2011) at the Palazzo Strozzi is a total triumph. These folks are doing everything right. They execute their very clear vision with consummate taste and skill. The first room, tailored in dark blue linen was jaw dropping with just four rotondos of the four apostles which represented some of Bronzino’s earliest work. The figures peer out of these round frames with contorted glory. Bronzino fills his frames in such astonishing ways; his compositions at once awkward and elegant. The faces haunt you with gaunt taught features. Defiant eyes bore into yours. They stare back at you with the same wide-eyed wonderment with which you stare at them.

The show is huge. 80 paintings from all over the world almost all of them by Bronzino himself. The presentation is understated and refined. A wainscoting of dark wood comes up to waist height where a sloped shelf holds the descriptors, but these are like no descriptors I have ever seen before. They are gracefully bowed metal "open books" with Italian on the left hand page and English on the right. The English is perfect instead of the usual badly translated Italian. They tell you just what you need to know and they are large enough that it is comfortable to stand back and read from a distance. Under the shelf at floor level is a small platform about the height of a shallow step and extending about 3 ft. from the wall. This shallow platform runs all the way around the room. This keeps you almost subconsciously at a comfortable distance from the paintings; you do not invade the portrait’s personal space. This is lucky because the paintings are so alive and dynamic you feel as though you are standing right in front of elaboratelly dressed people fresh from the 16th Century. This is a hyper-realistic feeling. No fabric looks quite that sumptuous in person. These hands are elongated, surreal, distorted; but at the same time profoundly elegant. The hands exude power and personality. These hands belong on someone like Jean Cocteau or Marlene Dietrich. There is nothing casual about them. They seduce your eye with an illicit caress.

It is no accident the profile of Laura Battiferri evokes the spirit of Dante, she was a Florentine intellectutal. In the flesh, the details of her veil and golden chain are extraordinarily effective. Bronzino said this woman was "iron within and ice without." Portrait of Laura Battiferri by Angelo Bronzino, 1555, 60 x 83 cms, Oil on Wood courtesy Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy

In many of the portraits I noticed an obsession with the edge detail between the figure and the background. Sometimes this edge is outlined in black. When the background is dark this extra edge disappears. In the video world this edge is called enhancement. Cameras used to electronically draw this edge between the light and dark areas of the pictures. The worse the camera, the thicker that dark line appears. Most of the new digital still cameras do this as well; they just do it more subtly. When you increase the "detail" with programs like Photoshop this line becomes more pronounced. It brings separation and definition.

Detail from Portrait of Giovanni de’ Medici by Angelo Bronzino, c. 1549, Tempera on wood, 58 x 45,6 cm, courtesy Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Bronzino cuts his figures out from the background with excruciating detail. Every lock of hair. All the little black nubs on a medieval jacket sewn from rough pieces of heavy black linen. Every little seed pearl on the border of a delicate silk veil. All these edges are defined with a thin black line. The effect creates luminosity and sensuality, like a Tiffany ring set against dark blue velvet.

The first room in the Portraits and Power show downstairs at the Palazzo Strozzi features a striking portrait of the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher by Helmut Newton, Exhibition room view Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina, Firenze Photo: Valentina Muscedra

As if Bronzino was not enough, the Palazzo Strozzi curators coordinated the exhibition with another fantastic show of contemporary photography. With perfect synergy, Portraits and Power contained the works of artists exploring the boundaries of photographic portraiture. A giant Helmut Newton of Margaret Thatcher was unforgettable. Nick Danziger’s compelling small black and white reportage photos of Tony Blair revealed grace under pressure. Also breathtaking were incredibly beautiful formal portraits, in full regalia, of Queen Elizabeth taken in the white rooms of Buckingham Palace by Annie Liebowitz.

Tony Blair overlooks a difficult situation from a helicopter in this revealing portrait by Nick Danziger–Helicopter Flight from RAF Lyneham to Battersea, 3 April 2003 Bromide print Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London © Nick Danziger

I was also moved by a series of very upsetting portraits of a young man transforming himself into a soldier by Rineke Kijkstra (The Netherlands, 1959)

Rineke Dijkstra Installation view, Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina, Firenze Photo: Valentina Muscedra

The first portrait shows a teenager clad in a dark t shirt against a light blue background. Then you see him a few months later in a uniform against a similar background. Then about six months further into his training with a hint of camouflage painted on his face. Then a few months later in dress uniform and so on. The final portrait shows the furrowed brow and combat trained eyes of a military man. All innocence is exhausted. The changes were almost invisible from portrait to portrait; but if you compared the first to the last the transformation was chilling.

I feel as though I risk trivializing this artist’s work by only showing the first and last in her series so please click on the photos for a link to more from this extremely talented photographer. (left) Olivier Quartier Vienot, Marseille, France, July 21, 2000 On loan from The Bank of America Merrill Lynch Collection (Right) Olivier Quartier Monclar, Djibouti, July 13, 2003 On loan from The Bank of America Merrill Lynch Collection

What is so captivating about portraiture? This must be something prehensile and locked within our DNA. A mother’s face staring into her baby’s eyes sets off some sort of innate recognition. We demand certain technical skill but a good portrait seethes with individuality and characterization. Do we all agree that personality trumps likeness? Spending the morning in the 16th century you learn to look at all the little artistic clues the artist has provided. The descriptors in the show took this down to the level of telling you which psalm was depicted in the prayerbook held open by one of those elegant fingers. The jewels and the armor and the little dogs or mastiffs sent other messages.

Allegorical portrait of Andrea Doria as Neptune by Angelo Bronzino, 1550-55, Oil on canvas, 115 x 53 cm courtesy Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

Sometimes the messages are blatant like Bronzino’s allegorical depiction of Andrea Doria as a muscular and naked Neptune. He stands unabashed with a sail barely covering his genitals and his hands grasping an oar that was later repainted into a trident. Andrea Doria stands naked but not without fearsome power; a defiant and magnificent combination.

To better know the person in a portrait there is also picture code. A certain type of flower may mean devotion. A bird clutched in a baby’s hand might mean something else. All these clues tell you who these people are. We see this every day as we make instant judgments about the people we see. Fashion statements, body language. There is something voyeuristic and exhibitionistic in all of these declarations. It feels more complicated than monkey see monkey do, but at bare minimum it is fun to stare at faces staring back at you. Bronzino knew this. His paintings depict but they also make you extremely self conscious. With all the paintings in the Strozzi show and all of the exciting firsts and discoveries they made, there was one portrait that was missing – most probably because it doesn’t exist. Where in the world was Bronzino’s immortalizing portrait of himself?

Until next time with much love,


  • portraiture is primal

    the markmaking of our being here now

    if only for that nanasecond that parenthesizes our existence

    and from the paintings you cite to the photos, with their much shorter tradition and history, you once again nail it, tom.



  • steve ellis says:

    Try to stare blankly. Now move any muscle on your face by the smallest increment you can muster and still be sure you’ve moved something. You will sense that you are now exhibiting a completely different emotion from the blank stare. A few million years of polishing face reading as a skill has made us unbelievably adept at inferring information from minuscule adjustment in eye tension, lip placement- even nose flares. The portraits that command my attention convey a story about the subject from the way they look at me. Like they’re a little upset with something I just said or are truly happy to see me, or can see right through whatever attitude I brought to the portrait that day. Your observation about them making us self conscious is exactly right. Great piece- again. thanks

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