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.