Reflect on Portraiture: Good ol’ fashioned Oil on Canvas

When someone says portraiture what’s the first thing you think of? For me it’s paintings of aristocratic people from the Renaissance period. These paintings may seem a million miles away from contemporary portraiture. But, actually as we’ll see in next week’s blog, self-fashioning (which is widespread in Renaissance portraiture) is still occurring today perhaps more than ever via social media. Read on and decide for yourself if its possible to relate with these images today.  


We’re going to look at the portraits painted of one important, and lesser known, Renaissance figure: Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), the Marchesa of Mantua, who was a key female patron of the arts during the Renaissance period. Despite being a woman Isabella received an excellent education in classical subjects such as Latin, Greek, and Ancient History. She was also skilled at singing, dancing, and playing the lute. She was married to Francesco II Gonzaga, who was often away battling, leaving Isabella to rule Mantua as regent.

As a female ruler Isabella had to find new ways to protect and promote Mantua, a small Italian state. For Isabella art acted as diplomatic currency, by attracting artists to Mantua with the promise of patronage she increased its importance as a cultural hub. Isabella commissioned artists and craftsmen to make all sorts of objects for her; many of them were displayed in her grotto and some were given to people as gifts, such as the medals made by Gian Cristoforo Romano.

  Gian Cristoforo Romano,  Medal of Isabella d’Este , 1498, cast bronze, diameter 3.75 cm, The British Museum, London

Gian Cristoforo Romano, Medal of Isabella d’Este, 1498, cast bronze, diameter 3.75 cm, The British Museum, London


  Dosso Dossi,  Portrait of Ercole I d’Este , duke of Ferrara, Galleria Estense, Modena

Dosso Dossi, Portrait of Ercole I d’Este, duke of Ferrara, Galleria Estense, Modena

For Renaissance rulers a portrait was about more than likeness; it projected a carefully curated image of themselves which would aid them in their official duties. This type of image creation is called self-fashioning and we’ll explore it more next week when we consider selfies and online presence. For a male Renaissance leader, such as Isabella’s father Ercole d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, this meant appearing strong, intelligent, and militarily skilled, as these were the characteristics expected of a male leader during the Renaissance. As a woman, Isabella was expected to project different virtues than her father. Her portraits attempt to strike a balance between depicting her as a virtuous woman and a capable leader.




Titian’s portrait

  Peter Paul Rubens, Isabella d’Este, 1600-1601, oil on canvas, 101.8 x 81 cm,  Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Peter Paul Rubens, Isabella d’Este, 1600-1601, oil on canvas, 101.8 x 81 cm,  Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Isabella commissioned many portraits of herself by artists who are well known today, including Leonardo da Vinci who produced a sketch of her; she has been thought to be one of the candidates for the identity of the Mona Lisa, 1503. Titian painted Isabella twice, the first painting was lost but we know what it looks like as Rubens made a copy of it. Isabella commissioned Titian to paint her when she was middle-aged, but she did not sit for this portrait, instead Titian painted it from a written description. Isabella disliked this portrait because it didn’t flatter her, and she looked old. She requested another painting from Titian, this time sending him a portrait painted of her as a young woman for him to work from.





Idealisation and beauty

  Titian, Portrait of Isabella d’Este, c.1534-1536, oil on canvas, 102 x 64 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Titian, Portrait of Isabella d’Este, c.1534-1536, oil on canvas, 102 x 64 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Isabella desired for her portrait to be idealised because youth and beauty were expected of Renaissance women. During the Renaissance, and for many years before and after, it was believed that your outward appearance reflected your internal virtues (or lack of). We’ll consider the effect of this belief more in the blog about idealisation.

Looking at the second portrait in comparison to the first you can get an idea of Renaissance beauty standards. Isabella has very pale skin which was fashionable, as a tan implied you worked outside and were therefore of lower class. Pale, almost translucent skin also implied the woman had nothing to hide. Isabella’s clothes are very fashionable; she wears ermine fur which is an expensive fabric and only worn by aristocrats. The plunging neckline of her dress and elaborate headpiece are both trends she started; Isabella is the Renaissance equivalent of an it-girl. As you can tell from this description, beauty was connected to money and status.

Is it a successful portrait?

Isabella was a key figure in the Renaissance, a keen collector of antiquities, a patron of the arts and a clever and diplomatically skilled female regent. How much of this is reflected in this portrait? Titian’s second portrait presents Isabella as a young, externally beautiful, internally virtuous, and rich aristocratic woman. But is it really a good portrait? If we judge in terms of likeness then is it unsuccessful, as it’s not what she looks like at all. Joyce de Vries has stated that the goal of the patronage of Renaissance females and male aristocrats was to: “appear great in the present and to build a legacy that would reflect their achievements for posterity.” If we measure success in terms of how well the artist achieves the patrons wishes, then Titian was definitely successful in depicting Isabella as young, rich, and beautiful, no doubt how she wanted to be remembered.


De Vries, Joyce. Caterina Sforza and the Art of Appearances: Gender, Art and Culture in Early Modern Italy. Surrey: Ashgate, 2010.

Geddes Helen, Patrick M. de Winter, Gordon Marshall Beamish, Clifford M. Brown, Charles Hope and Janet Southorn. “Este family(i).” Grove Art Online. Last Updated October 2, 2012.