The portrait as we know it today took form in early Renaissance Europe as artists sought to express the new value placed on the individual.
That is the big idea behind a delightful little show of small northern European portraits from the collection of Baltimore's Walters Art Gallery that opens today at the National Gallery in Washington.
The operative word here is "small." This is an intimately scaled exhibition of diminutive objects - illuminated manuscripts, altarpiece paintings, medallions and portrait miniatures from the 15th through the late 17th centuries - that is deliberately designed to complement the National Gallery's extensive collection of larger-scale works from the same period.
The contrast serves to heighten the singular appeal of these tiny likenesses, which were meant to create a feeling of intimacy between viewer and sitter. Such small portraits are endlessly fascinating and surprisingly varied not only in the materials used but also in their purpose and function.
Joaneath Spicer, the Walters' curator of renaissance and baroque art, and Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., the National Gallery's curator of northern baroque painting, have divided the show into three sections that suggest the different ways that small portraits celebrated religious devotion, reinforced political allegiances and served as intimate family mementos.
Few original examples of classical Greek portraiture survive, but the ancient Romans created realistic likenesses of their important men and women whose minutely observed facial details reflected the steadfast qualities considered admirable in the Roman character. The Romans were the true inventors of realistic portraiture, but that tradition ended with the collapse of the Roman empire, not to reappear for another thousand years.
Portraying the inner being
The re-emergence of the small portrait in the 15th century was directly related to the Renaissance's rediscovery of humanist ideas about the value of the individual as it was expressed in Greek and Roman philosophy. The earliest examples of the form are devotional images created to celebrate the Christian piety of their subjects, a theme that challenged artists to invent new ways to portray the interior psychological state of their sitters.
In Hugo van der Goes' masterly two-part painting "Donor with Saint John the Baptist" (c. 1475), for example, the artist has depicted the wealthy merchant who commissioned the portrait praying intently under the tutelage of his patron saint. His eyes are fixed on an image of the Virgin and child that once occupied the other side of the painting, a now-lost panel that would have formed the other half of an altarpiece diptych.
Van der Goes' donor is recognizable as a man of the modern world by the individuality of his expression, which marks him as a unique personality rather than as a mere type.
His slightly arched eyebrow and the nearly imperceptible contraction of muscles around his mouth all provide subtle clues to his interior life without transgressing contemporary rules of decorum that discouraged public displays of emotion. By skillful use of thin oil glazes layered to convey the translucence and malleability of skin, the artist has managed to capture the emotion of an intensely private moment in which the sitter is alone with his God.
Small portraits could also convey political messages. Charles V, who became Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, commissioned a severe profile portrait of himself embossed on gilt bronze medallions patterned after ancient Roman coins.
Charles, who as a young man was suddenly thrust into a position of great prestige but uncertain influence, probably distributed such medals as reminders of his imperial status and power and to inspire loyalty to his office.
Similarly, France's Henry IV liked to be portrayed as an Olympian deity. His aspirations to divinity are represented by a couple of exquisitely wrought bronze statues, each about one foot tall, that depict him and his consort, Queen Marie de Medici, as Jupiter and Juno, the Roman king and queen of the gods. The statues were created in the years just before 1610 - an unlucky number for the would-be god, who was assassinated that year.
Origins in England
The miniature painted portrait was pioneered in England at the court of King Henry VIII by Flemish artists who had been trained in the techniques associated with manuscript illumination.
The jewel-like portraits produced by these artists, some no larger than a quarter, were painted in opaque watercolor and gilding applied to vellum and were intended as intimate, loving mementos of wives, husbands and other family members that could be conveniently carried around in a locket.
In France, portrait miniaturists worked in painted enamel, a technique that created glistening, jewel-like surfaces. The art was centered in the town of Limoges, a city that has long been famous for the luxurious products of its ceramic industry.
By contrast, Dutch artists preferred the fluid yet precise qualities of oil paint for their miniatures. The show includes two wonderfully lifelike portraits, painted around 1626 by Cornelis van Poelenburgh, of a merchant-class couple playfully dressed up in peasant costume.
These magically animated images, at once so skillfully executed and so personal that one feels the very presence of the sitters across the intervening centuries, are unsurpassed examples of the small portraitist's art.
But by the late 17th century the tradition of the small portrait had fallen into decline. It was not until the 19th century, with the advent of the photographic age, that the form was again revived by a new corps of technologically inventive artist/craftsmen in whose hands it would achieve fresh expressive possibilities.
The Dutch Cabinet Gallery in which the Walters' paintings are displayed is matched by a new gallery for small-scale Italian art that opens today for the first time. These Italian Cabinet Galleries, which are located down the hall from the Dutch galleries, feature about 40 intimately scaled objects from the National Gallery's permanent collection.
Among the many gems in this splendid selection is one of my favorites: Venetian painter Paolo Veronese's stunning "The Finding of Moses" (1570/1575), which depicts a regally clad pharaoh's daughter at the moment her servants discover the infant prophet floating in his reed basket along the banks of the storied river Nile.
What: "Small Northern European Portraits from the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore"
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday; through Feb. 17
Where: The National Gallery of Art, 4th Street at Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington