The high renaissance saw huge growth in the painting of portraits, prior to this history and religious themes dominated the art world.
At that time art commissions were generally in the preserve of nobility and the papacy, however, an explosion in the wealth of traders from certain Italian merchant states and some Northern European cities meant that portrait commissions grew to be in high demand.
Artists would now split their time between vast murals for churches and cathedrals and more bespoke portraits of wealthy individuals and their families.
Earlier portraits from the renaissance were not strictly portraits as we would know them today, instead they would be the insertion or inclusion of a person into a religious scene.
Later renaissance portraits were often used as a show of wealth and would be more often than not a painting of a wealthy merchants wife sitting in all her finery.
Famous Renaissance Portraits
1. Mona Lisa – Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci created the Mona Lisa, a half-length portrait painting. It has been characterized as “the most known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world” and is considered an emblematic masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance.
The mysterious expression of the topic, the monumentality of the composition, the careful modeling of shapes, and the atmospheric illusionism are among the painting’s new aspects.
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The artwork is most likely of the Italian noblewoman Lisa Gherardini, Francesco del Giocondo’s wife. It’s an oil painting on a white Lombardy poplar panel.
Leonardo never delivered the artwork to the Giocondo family, and it is thought he left it to his favorite apprentice Sala in his will. It was thought to have been painted between 1503 and 1506; but, Leonardo may have worked on it as late as 1517.
It was purchased by King Francis I of France and is currently owned by the French Republic. Since 1797, it has been on permanent exhibit in the Louvre in Paris.
The Mona Lisa is one of the world’s most costly paintings. It holds the Guinness World Record for the highest recorded painting insurance valuation in history, with a value of US$100 million in 1962 (equivalent to $870 million in 2021).
2. Ginevra de’ Benci – Leonardo da Vinci
Ginevra de’ Benci is Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of the 15th-century Florentine nobleman Ginevra de’ Benci.
It is the only painting by Leonardo on display in the Americas, and it is on display in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Ginevra de’ Benci, a well-known young Florentine lady, is widely assumed to be the sitter in the image. Leonardo created the picture in Florence between 1474 and 1478, presumably to mark Ginevra’s 16th-year marriage to Luigi di Bernardo Niccolini. It is more likely to celebrate the engagement.
Contemporary portraits of ladies were often commissioned for one of two reasons: betrothal or marriage. Wedding pictures were typically produced in pairs, with the lady on the right facing left and the man on the left looking right; since this image faced right, it is more likely to indicate betrothal.
The juniper shrub that surrounds Ginevra’s head and occupies most of the backdrop has a function other than decoration. The juniper was considered a symbol of feminine virtue in Renaissance Italy, and the Italian term for juniper, ginepro, is also a play on Ginevra’s name.
The picture is one of the centerpieces of the National Gallery of Art, and many people like it for its depiction of Ginevra’s disposition. Ginevra is lovely, but austere; she doesn’t smile, and her gaze, although forward, looks uninterested in the audience.
The bottom of the picture was removed at some time, perhaps due to damage, and Ginevra’s arms and hands are presumed to have been lost.
3. Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione – Raphael
Raphael’s oil painting Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, c. 1514–1515, is credited to the Italian High Renaissance painter Raphael. It is regarded as one of the greatest Renaissance portraits and has had a lasting effect.
It represents Raphael’s friend, the diplomat and scholar Baldassare Castiglione, who is regarded as the ultimate High Renaissance gentleman.
Raphael’s connection with Castiglione, whose rise in courtly circles matched the artist’s, led to the creation of the picture. By 1504, when Castiglione made his second journey to Urbino, Raphael had gained renown as an artist in the humanist circle of the city’s ducal court, they had become good friends.
In 1505 Guidobaldo da Montefeltro commissioned Raphael to create a portrait for Henry VII; Castiglione proceeded to England to give the completed artwork to the monarch.
Castiglione may have subsequently acted as a “scholarly counselor” for Raphael’s The School of Athens, and the portrayal of Zoroaster in that fresco might be a portrait of the courtier.
Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione might have had a functional and personal purpose. When Castiglione travelled to Rome, he left his family behind, and he penned a poem in which he envisioned his wife and son soothing themselves with the image during his absence.
The structure is pyramidal. It is one of just two paintings on canvas by Raphael (it was considered before as originally painted on a wood panel, and later transferred to canvas). Copies made in the 17th century show Castiglione’s hands in their whole, implying that the image was afterwards chopped by several inches at the bottom (at a later date researchers determined it has not been cut).
4. The Ambassadors – Hans Holbein the Younger
Hans Holbein the Younger painted The Ambassadors in 1533. It was developed during the Tudor era, the same year Elizabeth I was born, and was also known as Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve.
According to Franny Moyle, Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, then Queen of England, may have commissioned the painting as a present for Jean de Dinteville, the diplomat seen on the picture’s left.
In addition to the double portrait, the painting includes a still life with numerous beautifully drawn items, the significance of which is subject to great controversy. It includes a well-known example of anamorphosis in art. Since its acquisition in 1890, The Ambassadors has been part of the collection of London’s National Gallery.
The twisted skull in the bottom center of the composition is the most recognized and renowned of Holbein’s emblems in the work.
The skull, depicted in anamorphic perspective, is supposed to be a visual conundrum, as the observer must approach the painting from high on the right side or low on the left side to perceive the shape as an authentic portrayal of a human skull.
While the skull is clearly meant as a vanitas or memento mori, it is unknown why Holbein chose to place it so prominently in this picture.
5. Lady with an Ermine – Leonardo da Vinci
The Lady with an Ermine was commissioned for her private collection by Ludovico Sforza’s mistress, Cecilia Gallerani. According to the account, she posed for Leonardo da Vinci when he was working on this artwork.
The picture portrays a woman reclining with one hand across her lap and the other clutching an ermine. Lady with an Ermine is regarded as one of Leonardo da Vinci’s most renowned portraits due to its beauty and the mystery surrounding it.
The composition is a pyramidic spiral, like in many of Leonardo’s paintings, and the sitter is captured in the process of traveling to the left, reflecting Leonardo’s lifelong interest in movement dynamics.
6. Philip II in Armour – Titian
Titian painted a picture of Philip II of Spain, Philip II in Armour, in 1551 when they were both at Augsburg.
Philip II (21 May 1527 – 13 September 1598), sometimes known as Philip the Prudent, was King of Spain from 1556 to 1598, King of Portugal from 1580 to 1580, and King of Naples and Sicily from 1554 to 1598.
From the time he married Queen Mary I in 1554 until her death in 1558, he was also the jure uxoris King of England and Ireland.
Titian’s most significant patron was Philip II, and their creative partnership was one of the most fertile of the Renaissance.
While Philip was still a prince, they met twice in Milan (December 1548-January 1549) and Augsburg (November 1550-1551), and Titian painted the prince’s portrait on both occasions.
7. Portrait of Eleonora Gonzaga – Titian
Portrait of Eleonora Gonzaga is a Titian painting from 1538 that is presently housed at the Uffizi in Florence with Portrait of Francesco Maria della Rovere, which depicts Eleonora’s spouse. It served as a model for several of his subsequent portraits, including Isabella of Portugal.
Eleonora Gonzaga, Duchess of Urbino (31 December 1493 – 13 February 1550) was the daughter of Francesco Maria I della Rovere, Duke of Urbino.
Eleonora, who was in charge of the internal administration of Urbino during her husband’s exile, was a significant patron of the arts in her own right. She was a high-culture princess who was friends with Pietro Bembo, Sadolet, and Baldassarre Castiglione, as well as Torquato Tasso.
Titian only painted her once formally, in 1537, as a companion piece to his portrait of her husband Francesco from the same year, but her face appears to be recognizable in three other Titian paintings from around the same time: La Bella, Girl in the Fur Cloak, and possibly the Venus of Urbino commissioned by her son Guidobaldo.
8. Self-Portrait with a Friend – Raphael
Raphael’s Self-Portrait with a Friend (also known as Double Portrait and Raphael and His Fencing Master) is a painting from the High Renaissance period in Italy. It was made between 1518 and 1520 and is now housed at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.
It’s unclear if the figure on the left is a self-portrait painting by Raphael, however it was described as such in a 16th-century print.
The identity of the guy seen in front of Raphael is unknown. Because he is holding the hilt of a sword, he has traditionally been regarded as his fencing teacher. Modern art historians believe him to be a personal friend of the painter, or maybe one of his students.
9. Arnolfini Portrait – Jan van Eyck
Jan van Eyck’s work named The Arnolfini Portrait, known as one of the most renowned portraits in history that shows a married couple, was finished in 1434 as an oil painting on a wooden panel, which was highly fashionable at the time.
The picture is well-known for its great degree of detail and clarity down to the smallest detail. The piece is said to depict an Italian merchant couple within their opulent mansion.
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The guy has a religious smile on his face as he tenderly grasps his pregnant wife’s hand. Van Eyck was able to overlay the picture in such a manner that deep strata of various tones and hues captured the viewer’s attention.
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The artist’s ability to capture the pair in a manner that looks to show the multiple levels of dimensions as both the guy and his wife have a great degree of realism that goes far into the backdrop.
10. Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan – Giovanni Bellini
The Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan is a painting by Giovanni Bellini, dated from about 1501–02.
It depicts Leonardo Loredan, Doge of Venice from 1501 until 1521, dressed in ceremonial robes and wearing the corno ducale over a linen hat, and is inscribed IOANNES BELLINVS on a cartellino (“small paper”). It now resides in the National Gallery in London.
With its intricate buttons, this formal painting represents Leonardo Loredan in his ceremonial state robes as Doge of Venice. The unusually formed hat is fashioned from a doublet’s hood.
The arrangement, like previous classic paintings of the Doge, is reminiscent of a Roman sculpted portrait bust. The picture is inscribed IOANNES BELLINVS – the Latin form of Giovanni Bellini – on a cartellino fastened to the composition’s parapet.