Share

People and portraits

From regal subjects to intriguing sitters: watch films and podcasts exploring historical figures depicted in art.

More from People and portraits (11 videos)

  • Female Narrator: Including symbolic objects or attributes, allow the portrait to say far more about its subject; such accessories could make a statement about a sitter’s identity. Hans Holbein painted this portrait of a ‘Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling’ on his first visit to England, around 1526 to 1528. Both animals were common pets, but here they seem to have an extra significance. This could be Anne Ashby, lady Lovell. The Lovell family coat of arms has three squirrels in it and their family home was at East Harling in Norfolk; starling could easily be a pun on this place name.

    Quick insight

    Introducing 'Lady with a Squirrel and Starling'

    About the video:

     

    Animal symbolism: is the identity of this sitter revealed through a squirrel and a starling?

     

    From the National Gallery DVD, 'Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian'

     

    Find out more about the 2008/2009 exhibition Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian

     

    More about Hans Holbein the Younger, Lady with a Squirrel and Starling (Anne Lovell?), about 1526-8

    About the video:

     

    Animal symbolism: is the identity of this sitter revealed through a squirrel and a starling?

     

    From the National Gallery DVD, 'Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian'

     

    Find out more about the 2008/2009 exhibition Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian

     

    More about Hans Holbein the Younger, Lady with a Squirrel and Starling (Anne Lovell?), about 1526-8

    Read More
     thumbnail00:50

    Quick insight

    Introducing 'Lady with a Squirrel and Starling'

    Movie
  • Antonio Mazzotta: Titian depicted this striking portrait when he was about 20, and the young Titian was able to formulate a completely new idea of portraiture. The pose is not static, it’s highly dynamic, so the sitter is turning. As soon as you turn, your gaze is more immediate.

    He wanted to give a sense that the eyes just cross yours, and that the position is going to change very soon. So it’s a moment in time, which gives a sense of immediacy and which is a technique still employed today by fashion photographers. It was really something so new and so revolutionary in this portrait. This particular pose, which is called ‘di spalla’ – looking over the shoulder – became a standard type of portrait for centuries.

    We should think about Van Dyck’s portraits and remember that Van Dyck owned this portrait. We should also think about Rembrandt’s portraits, such as the National Gallery 'Self-Portrait', executed in 1640. To be represented without any doubt, without any fear, was probably what was liked about Titian’s portraits, as well as the sense of physical presence, of reality.

    This portrait was probably executed in around 1511, when Titian was about 22 years old. What is really new about this portrait is that the parapet is starting to drop, so we see more of the figure. This was incredibly new. She’s really dominating. She’s this incredible iconic female figure that can be compared to the great mothers of the history of art, from Mesopotamia to the Roman matrons. Really, she’s an allegory of woman.

    There are several elements that make this picture uniquely Titian, starting from how it is painted. The handling of paint, the rendering of transparencies – like this wonderful veil – and the setting of the light, is also so clever. The light is coming from the upper left and washes this very pale skin with reddish cheeks. Also, this gives a presence of a pulsating animal. In a way this is a final point of his youth, but also a starting point for his mature style.

    Titian’s Early Portraits

    Antonio Mazzotta

    About the video:


    Curator Antonio Mazzotta explains how a young Titian formulated a completely new approach to portraiture.

     

    Featuring Portrait of Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo, about 1509 and Portrait of a Lady ('La Schiavona'), about 1510-12.

     

    More about the exhibition Titian's First Masterpiece: The Flight into Egypt, 4 April – 19 August 2012.

    About the video:


    Curator Antonio Mazzotta explains how a young Titian formulated a completely new approach to portraiture.

     

    Featuring Portrait of Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo, about 1509 and Portrait of a Lady ('La Schiavona'), about 1510-12.

     

    More about the exhibition Titian's First Masterpiece: The Flight into Egypt, 4 April – 19 August 2012.

    Read More
     thumbnail03:20

    Titian’s Early Portraits

    Antonio Mazzotta

    Movie
  • Alexander Sturgis: Eyes and face looking straight out of the painting make the sitter forthright, or open and frank. If the head is turned away but the eyes swivel to look out of the painting, as in this portrait by the 16th century Italian, Moroni, the sitter can appear haughty as if he can’t be bothered to turn his whole face towards us. But the same expression can be read as shifty. Proud eyes look at us down noses, like those of this gentleman, also by Moroni. While the same artist’s tailor looks up at us with a deferential tip of the head as if we had just walked into his shop and he wished to cut his cloth to suit us.

    Paintings decoded

    Writer Alexander Sturgis explores Moroni's portraits

    About the video:

     

    An open gaze, a defiant stare, a shifty look: decipher the expressions in portraits by Giovanni Battista Moroni – with writer Alexander Sturgis.

     

    From the National Gallery DVD, 'Portraits: Judging by Appearances'

     

    See more paintings by Giovanni Battista Moroni, 1520/4 - 1579

    About the video:

     

    An open gaze, a defiant stare, a shifty look: decipher the expressions in portraits by Giovanni Battista Moroni – with writer Alexander Sturgis.

     

    From the National Gallery DVD, 'Portraits: Judging by Appearances'

     

    See more paintings by Giovanni Battista Moroni, 1520/4 - 1579

    Read More
     thumbnail00:55

    Paintings decoded

    Writer Alexander Sturgis explores Moroni's portraits

    Movie
  • [Classical music playing in background]

    Louise Govier: By the end of the Renaissance, portraiture had been established as a thriving art form all over Europe and an extraordinary range of formats had been developed. These were also now available for anyone who wanted their image made; even a tailor could commission his own likeness. Portraiture was not longer simply the preserve of the most wealthy and powerful.

    Quick insight

    Introducing 'The Tailor'

    About the video:

     

    A cut above the rest? How this tailor might have come to commission his own portrait.

     

    From the National Gallery DVD, 'Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian'

     

    Find out more about the 2008/2009 exhibition Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian

     

    More about Giovanni Battista Moroni, The Tailor ('Il Tagliapanni'), 1565-70

    About the video:

     

    A cut above the rest? How this tailor might have come to commission his own portrait.

     

    From the National Gallery DVD, 'Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian'

     

    Find out more about the 2008/2009 exhibition Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian

     

    More about Giovanni Battista Moroni, The Tailor ('Il Tagliapanni'), 1565-70

    Read More
     thumbnail00:36

    Quick insight

    Introducing 'The Tailor'

    Movie
  • Colin Wiggins: But, we are on safer ground here, where the inclusion of this drawing most definitely has a meaning, for the artist has helpfully included a text for us. The drawing shows Lucretia, an ancient Roman heroine who, after being raped, committed suicide, as she could no longer live with the shame, her previously spotless life in ruins. Accordingly, she was held to be an example of feminine purity and virtue, with the words, after the example of Lucretia, let no violated woman live, inscribed on the paper. 

    But, this sets another puzzle, because it is not certain who this woman was. The painting is by Lorenzo Lotto and was made in the 1530s. It has been suggested that she is the wife of a Venetian noble and that her name was Lucretia Valliere making the subject of the drawing highly appropriate.

    Gesturing to the image of the dying Lucretia, she firmly states her own character and her unquestioned loyalty to her husband, but can this really be quite so simple? The manner that she chooses to display her jewellery, for example, not securely attached around her neck, but tucked provocatively down her front, combined with the suggestive fur-trimmed slits on her dress, and the somewhat over lavish wig, might suggest otherwise. 

    Added to that, one of the most popular working names of 16th century Venetian prostitutes was Lucretia, so maybe the inclusion of an ancient example of virtue is after all an ironic joke. 

    Paintings decoded

    Decipher the identity of 'Portrait of a Woman inspired by Lucretia'

    About the video:

     

    This mysterious woman hides many secrets. Is she a devoted loyal wife, or is the painting making an ironic joke about her virtue? With Colin Wiggins, National Gallery Education.

     

    From the National Gallery DVD, 'Themes and Variations: Pictures in Pictures'

     

    Find out more about Lorenzo Lotto, Portrait of a Woman inspired by Lucretia, about 1530-2

    About the video:

     

    This mysterious woman hides many secrets. Is she a devoted loyal wife, or is the painting making an ironic joke about her virtue? With Colin Wiggins, National Gallery Education.

     

    From the National Gallery DVD, 'Themes and Variations: Pictures in Pictures'

     

    Find out more about Lorenzo Lotto, Portrait of a Woman inspired by Lucretia, about 1530-2

    Read More
     thumbnail01:59

    Paintings decoded

    Decipher the identity of 'Portrait of a Woman inspired by Lucretia'

    Movie
  • Alexander Sturgis: The raised eyes of Moretto’s gentleman might suggest a contemplation of higher things but we can never be sure if we’re understanding these expressions correctly. Faces are open to an endless variety of interpretations.

    With this in mind, let’s look again at this young man of the 16th century. The initial reaction to this character is nearly always the same. He looks bored, so bored in fact that he has to prop his elbow on not one but two cushions. His dress and the objects that surround him suggest wealth and luxury. The coins on the table are almost certainly ancient Roman coins and, therefore, indicate some learning but what of the man’s expression? Is this the face of boredom?

    One detail of the painting suggests that this is a misreading. On the underside of his hat is a small label with writing in Greek. The inscription has been translated as meaning; 'alas, I desire too much', but what is he desiring? One theory, built up around this inscription, was that this young Italian noble was a member of the Cesaresco family whose father had been murdered. According to this theory, he is plotting bloody and violent revenge but there were other suggestions. One of these was that the inscription might contain a pun and mean both 'alas, I desire too much', and 'I desire Julia'. In other words, far from thinking bloody thoughts, this is a man dreaming of the woman he loves.

    Both these theories are almost certainly incorrect but the man has changed before our eyes, from a bored, rich man, to a man seeking revenge, to a man hopelessly in love. The latter idea is probably closer to the truth. Documents suggest that the young man is Fortunato Martinengo Cesaresco and this picture may well have been painted as a betrothal gift for his wife but, the point is that, without documents or the inscription, he would’ve remained a bored young man.

    Paintings decoded

    Writer Alexander Sturgis on facial expressions: 'Portrait of a Young Man'

    About the video:

     

    The look of love? Why this young man is not everything he appears to be. Find out more about judging appearances from the Renaissance – with writer Alexander Sturgis.

     

    From the National Gallery DVD, 'Portraits: Judging by Appearances'

     

    Find out more about Moretto da Brescia, Portrait of a Young Man, about 1540-5

    About the video:

     

    The look of love? Why this young man is not everything he appears to be. Find out more about judging appearances from the Renaissance – with writer Alexander Sturgis.

     

    From the National Gallery DVD, 'Portraits: Judging by Appearances'

     

    Find out more about Moretto da Brescia, Portrait of a Young Man, about 1540-5

    Read More
     thumbnail02:17

    Paintings decoded

    Writer Alexander Sturgis on facial expressions: 'Portrait of a Young Man'

    Movie
  • Louise Govier: As portraiture formats became more varied children were often paired with the parent of the same gender, receiving specific instruction and guidance. This portrait probably shows Giovanni Della Volta and his family with whom Lorenzo Lotto lodged in the mid-16th century. 

    Cherries, the fruits of paradise, provide the starting point for gendered games. The girl plays with their fruitful abundance in her mother’s hand, suggesting fertility, while the boy is taught a lesson in self-restraint, by his father, who holds more cherries just out of reach. 

    The boy’s near nakedness allows us to see his genitals, so that the viewer understands that the family line will continue.

    Both parents curve protectively around their children, the safety and comfort of the family base contrasts with the landscape visible through the window.

    Quick insight

    Introducing 'Portrait of Giovanni della Volta with his Wife and Children'

    About the video:

     

    The Renaissance family: what this painting tells us about Giovanni della Volta, his wife and children.

     

    From the National Gallery DVD, 'Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian'

     

    Find out more about the 2008/2009 exhibition Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian

     

    More about Lorenzo Lotto, Portrait of Giovanni della Volta with his Wife and Children, completed 1547

    About the video:

     

    The Renaissance family: what this painting tells us about Giovanni della Volta, his wife and children.

     

    From the National Gallery DVD, 'Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian'

     

    Find out more about the 2008/2009 exhibition Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian

     

    More about Lorenzo Lotto, Portrait of Giovanni della Volta with his Wife and Children, completed 1547

    Read More
     thumbnail01:04

    Quick insight

    Introducing 'Portrait of Giovanni della Volta with his Wife and Children'

    Movie
  • Louise Govier: Men as well as women could be represented in terms of ideal beauty and virtuous character. Debates about the possible identity of this man, by Palma Vecchio have concluded that if this does represent a particular sitter then he was one primarily concerned with how close he came to an ideal of male spirituality and creativity. He is the epitome of the dreamy young poet.

    Quick insight

    Introducing 'Portrait of a Poet'

    About the video:

     

    Portraying the ideal: what this anonymous sitter might be trying to tell us.

     

    From the National Gallery DVD, 'Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian'

     

    Find out more about the 2008/2009 exhibition Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian

     

    Find out more about Palma Vecchio, Portrait of a Poet, about 1516

    About the video:

     

    Portraying the ideal: what this anonymous sitter might be trying to tell us.

     

    From the National Gallery DVD, 'Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian'

     

    Find out more about the 2008/2009 exhibition Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian

     

    Find out more about Palma Vecchio, Portrait of a Poet, about 1516

    Read More
     thumbnail00:36

    Quick insight

    Introducing 'Portrait of a Poet'

    Movie
  • Unidentified Female Speaker: Painted likenesses played a vital part in the negotiation of high level marriages. Henry VIII sent Holbein to Brussels in March 1538 to make this full length portrait of 'Christina of Denmark', a young widow he was considering as his fourth wife. The king would have expected that she be shown full face, so that no imperfections could be hidden. He was pleased with the portrait and kept it, even though, perhaps mercifully for Christina, the negotiations eventually came to nothing.

    Quick insight

    Presenting 'Christina of Denmark'

    About the video:

     

    Find out how this full-length portrait was used to introduce King Henry VIII to a potential bride.

     

    From the National Gallery DVD, 'Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian'

     

    Find out more about the 2008/2009 exhibition Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian

     

    More about Hans Holbein the Younger, Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan, 1538

    About the video:

     

    Find out how this full-length portrait was used to introduce King Henry VIII to a potential bride.

     

    From the National Gallery DVD, 'Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian'

     

    Find out more about the 2008/2009 exhibition Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian

     

    More about Hans Holbein the Younger, Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan, 1538

    Read More
     thumbnail00:43

    Quick insight

    Presenting 'Christina of Denmark'

    Movie
  • Miranda Hinkley: So, here we are in Room 34 and this is Reynolds’s portrait of 'Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons'.

    Jacqui Ansell: Yes, she’s a rather hardworking lady because she married aged 20 and became the second wife of a chap who already had three daughters. So here she is, stepmother, new mother to three little boys – she subsequently goes on to produce even more children – so she’s got her heir and a spare and one left over as well. And she’s looking far from harassed by the three children that swarm around her…

    Miranda Hinkley: She’s looking very sort of calm indeed, and in fact looking away from the viewer, out towards the corner of the canvas.

    Jacqui Ansell: Yes, in fact she almost looks as though she’s looking very contemplative and there is rather a stark contrast in her gaze compared to the gaze of the painting that inspired this. Reynolds was an artist who was very, very interested in the Old Masters – it’s not just Picasso who goes around challenging the past – and what he did was he went on an extended Grand Tour and he filled his sketch books with information and well as Italian Old Masters, he also saw Flemish Old Masters like Van Dyck. And we’ve got a painting in our collection which is 'Charity' – a personification of charity by Van Dyck, where the woman is absolutely surrounded by these three little chubby children. She looks up to heaven and to me she looks as if she’s saying ‘God ‘elp me’, but she really is saying ‘God help me’, and she’s a personification of the Christian virtue of charity. So of course as soon as you know that and as soon as you look at this painting you see not just a portrait of Lady Cockburn and three little children, you see her almost as a personification of charity.

    Miranda Hinkley: I mean, he’s basing his composition on a Van Dyck and the interesting thing there is of course that Van Dyck was an artist, originally a history painter, who became a portraitist when he arrived in Britain, who also had very great aspirations, and he wanted to be seen as an equal and did manage to gain quite significant status for an artist of his day. So perhaps Reynolds is choosing to hark back to Van Dyck for that reason. But of course at the same time this is a portrait of a society lady, isn’t it?

    Jacqui Ansell: Reynolds strongly believed that you had to give a female sitter something of the modern for the sake of likeness and the general air of the antique for the sake of dignity. Now when this was on display at the Royal Academy – and it was actually greeted by a round of applause when it appeared – the erudite public would recognise this not just as Lady Cockburn, but they’d also see in it charity, this Christian virtue, but they’d also see in it something we don’t see today, and that is her as Cornelia. Cornelia was the Roman matron who was the mother of the Gracchi, these three fine soldiers, and when a companion of hers was showing off her jewellery, Cornelia allegedly brought forth her three sons and said ‘these are my jewels – my children are my jewels’. And this for me is one of the jewels of the collection if you like…

    Miranda Hinkley: Well, they certainly look like lovely children in this painting at least. Jacqui, thank you very much.

    Jacqui Ansell: Thank you.

    Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Jacqui Ansell on Joshua Reynolds.

    Paintings decoded

    Portraying 'Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons'

    About the podcast clip:

     

    Personification or portrait? Jacqui Ansell, National Gallery Education, examines Reynolds's impressive Lady Cockburn

     

    From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Thirty One (May 2009)

     

    Find out more about Sir Joshua Reynolds, Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons, 1773

    About the podcast clip:

     

    Personification or portrait? Jacqui Ansell, National Gallery Education, examines Reynolds's impressive Lady Cockburn

     

    From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Thirty One (May 2009)

     

    Find out more about Sir Joshua Reynolds, Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons, 1773

    Read More
     thumbnail03:27

    Paintings decoded

    Portraying 'Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons'

    Movie
  • Miranda Hinkley: This monumental canvas depicts one of the darker episodes in English history, in which the blindfolded figure of the 16-year-old Lady Jane Grey has to be helped to find the block on which she must place her head. A victim of her power-hungry father-in-law, John Dudley, Lady Jane ruled as queen for just nine days following the death of Henry VIII’s son Edward VI. But her cousin, the Catholic Mary Tudor, seized the throne. Lady Jane was held prisoner in the Tower of London, convicted of treason, and on 12 February 1554 she was beheaded. Almost 456 years to the day, Leah Kharibian and the National Gallery’s Chris Riopelle made a visit to a very chilly Tower to meet Historic Royal Palaces curator, Jane Spooner. There, she took them to a spot rich in associations with the ‘Nine Days Queen’.

    Jane Spooner: We’re standing on Tower Green, which is famous for its association with the execution of Lady Jane Grey. To one side is the medieval Beauchamp Tower and is where her husband and her husband’s family were imprisoned after her fall and Mary Tudor’s triumphant return to London. And in front of me is St Peter ad Vincula, the Chapel Royal, and this is where Lady Jane Grey’s body is buried. And over to the right hand side, over to what’s now the parade ground, right next to the White Tower, is actually where we know that the scaffold was erected for the execution of the unfortunate queen, and this is actually recorded in a chronicle written by somebody who was very likely to have been an eye-witness – a tower official.

    Leah Kharibian: And Jane, do you find that visitors are still really fascinated in the story? Are they still looking for the precise place where Lady Jane Grey was executed?

    Jane Spooner: Yes, visitors do come to the Tower and they’re always expecting an ‘X-marks-the-spot’ moment and of course so much history did happen at the Tower of London, but we don’t always know the exact location. We do know where Lady Jane Grey was executed but it actually isn’t where we have a memorial for people executed within the Tower walls. This spot was created on the orders of Queen Victoria, who was so moved by the story of the execution of Anne Boleyn, but we now use this particular execution site memorial space as a place to commemorate all of those who were executed within the Tower walls and that includes Lady Jane Grey.

    Leah Kharibian: And Chris, if I can ask you, I mean, the enduring fascination of Lady Jane Grey, does that go for you too, for the painting at the National Gallery?

    Chris Riopelle: Yes, ever since the painting of the execution of Lady Jane Grey was rediscovered in 1973 and then put on view at the National Gallery in 1975, it has been something of a phenomenon. Almost immediately it emerged as one of the favourite paintings in the National Gallery; people were fascinated by the story, by the realism of it, and to this day there is always a crowd in front of it. The picture remains extraordinarily popular. In fact, we notice that such are the crowds that the varnish on the floor is repeatedly worn down and has to be replaced on a regular basis.

    Leah Kharibian: And what do you think accounts for this fascination in Lady Jane’s story? If I could ask you first, Jane?

    Jane Spooner: Well, I think certainly at the Tower, it’s the contrast between this very young girl pitted against some of the most politically ambitious motives of the day; imprisoned in what is, in the popular imagination, a very harsh stony fortress. The Tower is associated with dungeons, torture, and execution in people’s minds. I think when people come to the Tower and they realise this is the real location, this is the place where Lady Jane Grey actually met her death, I think that’s a very moving and profound thing.

    Leah Kharibian: And Chris, we know that Delaroche… although it’s an absolutely fantastic painting, he did play around with some of the elements, didn’t he? For example, the execution appears to take place indoors as opposed to outside as we know it really did.

    Chris Riopelle: Yes, but Delaroche was very interested in getting the details right. And we know that he came to London twice in 1822 and 1827 to do research. He came to the Tower of London to see what it was like, to make notes – there are notes and sketches made here – he wanted you to feel that he was acting as a historian. There are a very large number of preparatory drawings as he worked out the details, worked out the placement of the figures, those are all gathered in the exhibition, and also Delaroche was the French painter most obsessed with English history. Throughout his career, he painted these great scenes from English history, three of them set here at the Tower of London, and those are all in the exhibition as well, showing Lady Jane Grey in the widest context.

    Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Chris Riopelle, Jane Spooner and all at the Tower of London.

    In conversation

    Curators Chris Riopelle and Jane Spooner on Lady Jane Grey

    About the podcast clip:

     

    Join National Gallery curator Chris Riopelle on his visit to a very chilly Tower Green, the site of Lady Jane Grey's execution and burial. With Historic Royal Palaces curator, Jane Spooner, and the National Gallery's Leah Kharibian.

     

    From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Forty One (March 2010)

     

    Find out more about Paul Delaroche, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, 1833

     

    More about the 2010 exhibition Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey

    About the podcast clip:

     

    Join National Gallery curator Chris Riopelle on his visit to a very chilly Tower Green, the site of Lady Jane Grey's execution and burial. With Historic Royal Palaces curator, Jane Spooner, and the National Gallery's Leah Kharibian.

     

    From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Forty One (March 2010)

     

    Find out more about Paul Delaroche, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, 1833

     

    More about the 2010 exhibition Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey

    Read More
     thumbnail05:34

    In conversation

    Curators Chris Riopelle and Jane Spooner on Lady Jane Grey

    Movie
  • Share