Artist profile: Botticelli – Portraits

Every month, I profile an artist who inspires my own art, in several segments.

Besides slipping in portraits of real people into his Christian and Pagan art, Botticelli painted several official portraits. Today I’ll be talking about seven of them and some issues that come up.
Portrait of a Young Man
Portrait of a Young Man (c. 1470-75)
As it says on the the wikipedia page, this portrait of an unknown young man wasn’t always attributed to Botticelli. I include it here because, if he did do it, congratulations to Mr. Sandro Botticelli for painting “one of the first known three-quarter portraits in western European art”! *throws confetti* You don’t really think about things like this – that, until a certain time, nobody did a certain thing. Somebody – and sometimes it’s several somebodies in different places – had to invent this view. It’s funny because this is practically the only kind of view I draw, because it’s such a good way of portraying someone – it’s not boring and doesn’t require perfect symmetry.
Portrait of a Youth with a Medal
Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo the Elder (c. 1475)
As you can read here, the identity of this man is unknown and apparently inspires the kind of speculation about his identity as the subject of the Mona Lisa. When I look at this, though, I just wonder about his face. As is so common in Botticelli’s works – whether based on real people or not – one eyeball is placed noticeably lower on the face, giving the impression that he is tilting his head, even though the line of his face shows he is not.
Portrait of a Young Woman
Portrait of a Young Woman (c. 1475)
Here we have the popular method of portraiture during the Renaissance: the profile. I think it’s a very limited way of portraying someone, because even when it’s visually interesting (see Simonetta Vespucci below), it still comes off as static and spiritually boring because you can’t see the rest of the face. Also, this lady looks like she’s going to have upper back problems soon.
Portrait of Giuliano de' Medici
Portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici (c. 1475)
This is one of three nearly-identical portraits Botticelli painted of Giuliano; this is the best one in terms of not being damaged or discolored. You can tell this isn’t an idealized portrait – check out that overbite! Botticelli made some interesting decisions for this portrait: a plain window framing the head but sort of cutting the neck; a lowered gaze, which not only gives Giuliano a snobby look (well, he was co-ruler of Florence, so maybe he was) but also prevents us from seeing his eyes; and the emphasis on a few well-defined lines on Giuliano’s face. I especially wonder about the downcast eyes – it really keeps the viewer at a distance, preventing us from connecting with him in the same way that profile portraits do.
Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci
Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci (c. 1476-80)
Simonetta Vespucci, the beloved beauty of Florence, died at the tragic age of 22. Botticelli, who adored her, went on painting her decades after her death. She is probably the model for The Birth of Venus and a few other of his paintings. This portrait may have been from life, as 1476 is the year she died. It may also not even be her, as it looks pretty damn idealized. Of course, it is possible to attach a bazillion pearls to one’s hair, but it’s kind of hard. You’ll notice the hairstyle is very similar to Venus’s in The Birth of Venus, and even looks as though it’s moving in an unseen breeze. And I want to note again that, even with a gorgeous lady wearing a nice dress and having a crazy hairdo, the profile portrait just isn’t that great in a human-to-human way.
2 portraits of young men
Portrait of a Young Man (times 2) (c. 1483)
I decided to put these two together, as it’s obvious Botticelli was exploring an idea. On the left, we have an interesting composition and a well-modeled hand, while on the right is a straight-on bust portrait. Even though the left painting is more interesting composition-wise, the boy on the right looks like he is breathing, right now. It’s mostly the eyes – the boy on the left has flat eyes with no light glares and looks down and to the side, whereas the boy on the right engages us directly. His hair is also more realistic-looking, and his mouth isn’t pursed. His neck is a little weird, but I still think he’s the best one!

Thank you so much for exploring Botticelli’s paintings with me this month! I’ve learned a lot during this series and feel closer to his works now.

Other parts in the Botticelli artist profile series
Pagan stuff



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