Some thoughts on eyes in early Renaissance portraits

Portrait of a Woman with a Winged Bonnet, Rogier van der Wyden; Portrait of a Woman, Robert Campin; Lady with an Eermine, Leonardo da Vinci
This started out as just an Eye Candy post on Rogier van der Wyden’s beautiful Portrait of a Woman with a Winged Bonnet (alternately known as Lady Wearing a Gauze Headdress, or simply Portrait of a Young Woman), shown above, top, with detail.

In the course of preparing the images for the post, I once again became fascinated by the subject’s eyes, as I had when writing my 2007 post on Rogier van der Wyden. In writing that post, I had the temerity to suggest that the artist had represented the shape of the two eyes as essentially the same, when in fact the eye to our right should be more foreshortened due to its position on the curve of the skull.

I further suggested that this might be an example of artists of the period in general coming to grips with more sophisticated representation of reality than their counterparts in the Gothic period, and still struggling with some aspects of accurate seeing.

Many contemporary artists, yours truly included, struggle with the same thing — accurately drawing what we really see as opposed to what we know, or what we think we see.

I certainly can’t say I’ve conducted a survey of any percentage of early Renaissance artists in this respect, I just noticed it in this particular portrait, which I think is nonetheless one of the most striking and beautiful in the history of art.

Van der Wyden’s portrait was painted around 1440. For comparison, I’ve included images of a three-quarter portrait by his teacher, Robert Campin: Portrait of a Woman, from roughly 10 years earlier (which I’ve flipped left-to-right here, third and fourth down), and another striking portrait, Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, from some 50 years later.

In Campin’s painting, I think something of the same problem exists, even if expressed slightly differently; and in Leonardo’s portrait, the issue is resolved — the eye to our right correctly turned in its socket, and the two eyes distinctly different in shape.

Arguments might be made that Campin’s portrait is turned slightly more toward us, and Leonardo’s slightly more away, but I don’t think in either case the difference is that significant.

I think Leonardo, the later and more brilliant observer, has simply worked it out correctly, and, along with his contemporaries, passed on his knowledge to those who followed.

Whether I’m right or not, I think it’s worth a look.

For more, see my previous post on Rogier van der Wyden, in which I initially suggested the same thing, and discussed it at greater length.

11 Replies to “Some thoughts on eyes in early Renaissance portraits”

  1. My 2 cents: I simply don’t think that unerring accuracy was the top priority in classical painting. That’s what separates it from what is today called classical realism, which really isn’t classical at all. I think they knew about more things than they wanted to include in their paintings. For instance hey knew that shadows on white outdoor objects are often blue-ish (da Vinci states as much in one of his notebooks) but they still used warm toned shadows for pictorial harmony and perhaps because it was more pleasing to their eye.

    Also, you see purposeful anatomical “errors” up until and past Ingres. Classical painters were doing abstraction before it became its own movement!

    On a side note, that’s the whole idea of photography making painting obsolete is only a partial truth in my opinion. Yes, perhaps for the academic realists, but I’ve never seen a photo that looked anything like a Rubens or Tiepolo.

    1. Thanks, Chris. Could be, though I have trouble reconciling the beautiful accuracy with which the other facial features are delineated with the issue that intrigued me about the eyes. Another thought though, that might also be in line with what you suggest, is the case of many of Jan van Eyck’s paintings, in which there is striking “realism” in some ways, and odd disproportion in others, such as the frequent representation of hands as too small for the figure.

  2. Am I just imagining it or am I really looking at the same lady?
    In my opinion there are a lot of similarities between the two portraits of Van der Weyden and Campin: the shape of their mouths, their lips, chins and cheekbones, the almond-shaped eyes.
    For the fun of it I photoshopped the eyes of the lady of Van der Weyden in those of the one of Campin. They fitted perfectly!
    And the similarity improved even more.

    1. Good point, Jeff. Most were straight on as I recall (as were their stylistic descendants from Pompeii and Herculaneum), but I’ll be curious to dig a bit with that in mind. I do remember being impressed with how “modern” and sophisticated they were in many respects, though.

  3. Whatever the truth is I have always preferred the earlier northern work to the renaissance of the south. Those inaccuracies or willful stylization make for more interesting work to my clumsy eyes.

    1. I agree, Bill. As much as I admire the Italian artists, there’s a kind of strangeness and power to the Northern paintings that isn’t there in the more “refined” work of the Southern Renaissance. I think it actually comes in part from what we’re discussing, a blend of iconic and slightly naive style with extraordinary rendering and technical prowess. There’s a feeling that the Italian painters have arrived at something, while their Northern counterparts feel more like they’re still exploring a strange and wonderful new territory.

  4. Charley,
    Could it also be that some features are less accurate than others because particular body parts forged into certain shapes have symbolic meaning? Maybe two frontal eyes used to signify some ideal or value. I mean you’re probably right about the eyes in this case, but some of these paintings strike me as having some dual and/or hidden (to us) meaning. I see calculation and purpose behind every shape and contour.

    And I agree with you about the appeal of these paintings. I’ve become more drawn to early Flemish painting. A strictly naturalistic art and it’s rules doesn’t appeal to me anymore, while at the same time there is enough of fidelity to nature’s visual laws to keep these works from going off the rails, so to speak. Though, in my opinion, Renaissance Italian figure drawings have never been equaled in power, confidence or expression by any other school of drawing.

    1. Could well be, Chris. I do know that in the case of Northern painters like Van Eyck, almost every object in the painting could be meaningfully symbolic. It might also be that an artificial symmetry between the eyes was considered more beautiful than reality.

      I agree about Italian Renaissance drawings (particularly Raphael’s chalk drawings – wow). I still prefer Northern early Renaissance prints and graphics, though (e.g. Durer).

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