Portraiture and The Female Ideal in Renaissance Art

When people think of the Renaissance, they think of Michelangelo, Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, and others. Women artists and thinkers are rarely associated with the greats of this time period, limiting them to characters in literature and subjects in art. Renaissance art came to define society and symbolize culture using those who are depicted in them as mirrors of the Renaissance reality instead of accurate portrayals. Women’s depiction in the arts only showcased the restrictions that they had to face during the Renaissance, including the manipulation of their image by artists of the time. The iconography of women in art during the Renaissance is limiting in subject matter but reveals many details of the subject’s life through details like how their eyes are positioned, their posture, and what activities they are depicted to be participating in. These small details allowed male artists to manipulate how women were depicted during this time.

One of the most prevalent details in the depiction of women in Renaissance art is the avoidant positioning of the sitter’s eyes. Sandro Botticelli’s paintings The Virgin and Child [1] and The Birth of Venus [2] show women facing away from the painting’s viewer with downcast eyes and heads facing away or slightly off-center to never look directly at the viewer. The Virgin and the Child depicts the Virgin Mary in a three-quarter view away from the viewer, holding baby Jesus on her lap. There is another person, but Mary is not looking at them or at the baby, but rather to the ground in a demure fashion, diverting her eyes. The Birth of Venus is of similar style, but the female centerpiece of the painting is depicted in a much different way than The Virgin and the Child. Venus depicts the Roman goddess Venus coming to shore after her birth, emerging from a giant half of a clamshell. In this painting, Venus is not looking directly at the viewer of the painting or at anything in particular, but instead seemingly looking past the viewer to something just beyond. She is depicted with thin eyebrows, flowing blonde hair, and a thicker body emulating the beauty standards of the Renaissance. In comparison, portraits of men during this time like that of Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man in Red [3], show the opposite of female portraits. This portrait shows a young man staring directly out into the viewer’s world with a three-quarter positioning of the body. His clothes are plain but neat, maintaining a collected appearance. His positioning draws attention away from him and onto the patterned carpeting his arm is on and the lush background. As seen in this portrait, men’s eyes are usually facing the viewer, looking directly at them with the head positioned straight providing more of a “look” than a “gaze,” that was commonly seen in portraits of women. The evasive nature of the position of the women’s eyes makes the subject seem more demure and gentler. Michael Baxandall’s theory of the “period eye”[4] rationalizes the difference in posture and position of the eyes as a reflection of societal normalcies for men and women during the Renaissance. This theory perfectly exemplifies the idea of Renaissance art being more a mirror of idealized society rather than an accurate depiction of day-to-day life.

The Renaissance’s roots in Greek and Roman art are evident in portraits created during this time. Ancient Greek and Roman art are known to be the comprehensive collections of beauty and beauty standards of the time [5], making Renaissance art its more modern equivalent. Portraits of Renaissance women were the perfect opportunity for male artists to showcase their and society’s ideals and beauty standards for women. Painters during this time focused on and emphasized the physical beauty of women, painting them to meet the standards of Renaissance beauty. Baxandall’s theory supports the idea of Renaissance paintings, female portraits, in particular, reflect not only the ideals of Renaissance society but also ideals varying from artist to artist. Beauty standards for women during the Renaissance included pale skin, thin eyebrows, high forehead, and rounder bodies [6]. These ideals can be seen in Alesso Baldovinetti’s Portrait of a Lady in Yellow. [7] The female sitter is painted to have a high forehead, pale skin, and thin eyebrows that were standards of beauty. The sitter is painted in a gold dress, gold being a color associated with royalty, with palm-like detailing on the sleeves, gold necklace, and headpiece. The portrait set against the bland, flat blue background makes the sitter and her details pop against everything else. All aspects of the sitter’s depiction work right alongside the standards of beauty during the Renaissance. Although the colors and image itself are a bit static, the imagery and depiction of the female sitter make her appear as the pinnacle of Renaissance beauty and style. Another example of these standards seen in female portraitures is Pisanello’s Portrait of a Princess. [8] Similar to Baldovenetti’s portrait, Pisanello’s portrait highlights the same high forehead, thin eyebrows, and pale skin. Pisanello’s portrait also paints the sitter in much more elaborate and colorful clothing with red and cream pleated dress with orange, grey, and brown detailing and an ornate cape on the back of the dress. The beading and embroidery on the sleeve and cape-like fabric on the back of the dress suggest that the sitter belonged to royalty, if not the upper-class, showcasing her and her family’s wealth through her attire. [9] From looking at both of these portraits, it is important to note that a woman’s status also plays a part in ideals portrayed through the paintings. Social status of the actual sitter or the idealized versions played into the ideals of beauty that were being portrayed through the portraits. These portraits and many others like them are not accurate depictions of women during the Renaissance but a rough idea of what women were like with ideals about society and beauty placed upon them.

Renaissance art often ascribed inspiration from Greek and Roman mythology — Tiziano Vecellio’s Flora [10] is no exception. Similar to Pisanello and Baldovinetti’s portraits, Vecellio’s depiction of the Greek goddess of flowers, plants, and spring utilizes warm colors to evoke a sense of sensuality and femininity within the painting. Flora is one of many portraits created by Vecellio that depicted the ideal Renaissance woman. Other paintings of his during this time include Venus Anadyomene and Venus with a Mirror that all portray similar types of women. The woman in Flora is thought to be the Greek goddess is depicted as having darker gold hair that cascades onto her shoulder and having her right shoulder and upper chest exposed to the viewer, creating a sense of sensuality within the painting. The elaborate fabric that is draped around her waist and around her shoulder draws the viewer’s eye to her exposed chest while creating a juxtaposition of interest from the handful of flowers and greenery in her right hand. This painting is an example of how sensuality and femininity were emphasized in art during the Renaissance. Like many other portraits and portrayals of women during this era, her eyes are off-cast towards something else in the room, averting her gaze from the viewer. In Venus with a Mirror, [11] the woman in the portrait is naked from the waist up as she gazes in a mirror supported by cherubs. The elaborate beadwork and embroidery of the cloth she is draped along with the ornate jewelry she is wearing suggests a higher social status, possibly a member of a more elite family with access to wealth. Similarly to Flora, the woman depicted has blonde hair in an elaborate updo, pale skin, thin eyebrows, and a larger forehead, matching the ideals and standards of beauty during the Renaissance. Like in Flora, the woman has her eyes diverted away from the portrait’s viewer and into the mirror supported by the cherubs. At the same time, she is portrayed with a soft smile that elicits warmth and femininity. The same warm colors are seen in both portraits within the details like golden blonde hair, vivid fabrics, and creamy skin. The overall sensual appearance and demeanor displayed in Vecellio’s portraits could be considered the epitome of femininity during the Renaissance.

Despite women’s lack of development within the arts during the Renaissance, they remained to be one of the most prevalent subjects of the time period. Portraits by Botticelli, Baldovinetti, and Vecellio all portray women in roughly the same way — idealized versions of Renaissance-era women who fit beauty standards of the time perfectly. Baxandall’s theory of the “period eye” rationalizes the reasoning behind why male painters decided to depict women the way they had with downturned or aloof eyes and off-kilter positions of their heads. As Renaissance art was a reflection of societal and personal ideals, the women depicted in the portraits were not an accurate representation but more of a symbolic catalyst for Renaissance ideals.

[1] Botticelli, Sando. “The National Gallery.” The National Gallery. London, n.d. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/workshop-of-sandro-botticelli-the-virgin-and-child

[2] Botticelli, Sando. “Google Arts & Culture.” Google Arts & Culture. Google, n.d. https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/the-birth-of-venus-sandro-botticelli/MQEeq50LABEBVg?hl=en.

[3] “The Getty Museum.” The Getty Museum. Los Angeles, California, n.d. http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/677/circle-of-raphael-raffaello-sanzio-portrait-of-a-young-man-in-red-italian-about-1505/.

[4] Berdini, Paolo. 1998. “Women under the Gaze: A Renaissance Genealogy.” Art History 21 (4): 565. doi:10.1111/1467–8365.00130.

[5] Macaulay, Alastair. “The Body Beautiful: The Classical Ideal in Ancient Greek Art.” The New York Times. The New York Times, May 17, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/18/arts/design/the-body-beautiful-the-classical-ideal-in-ancient-greek-art.html.

[6] Pérez, Zoralis. “Why Are Women Chubby And Men Muscular In Classical Art?” Renaissance Art Bodies: Why Women Are Chubby And Men Muscular — Art — Art. Cultura Colectiva, November 12, 2019. https://culturacolectiva.com/art/the-body-in-renaissance-art.

[7] Baldovinetti, Alesso. “National Gallery.” National Gallery. London, United Kingdom: National Gallery, n.d. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/alesso-baldovinetti-portrait-of-a-lady.

[8] Paris, France: Web Gallery of Art, n.d. https://www.wga.hu/html_m/p/pisanell/1paintin/princess.html.

[9] Wesley, Janette. “Portrait of a Princess by Pisanello.” Wall Street International, August 8, 2012. https://wsimag.com/art/1569-portrait-of-a-princess-by-pisanello.

[10] Vecellio, Tiziano. Florence, Italy, n.d.

[11] Vecellio, Tiziano. Florence, Italy, n.d.




Media Studies student at the University of San Francisco.

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Emily Hering

Emily Hering

Media Studies student at the University of San Francisco.

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