This is one of my very favorite articles. I will lead the discussion of this article on Thursday. Here are some questions to ponder:
1. This article reinforces many of the themes that we have discussed so far in this course, particularly the lack of neutrality of the gaze. Through what methodological lenses does Simons view the issue of gender in profile portraits created in the Renaissance?
2. The portraits in this article are seen in the context of the display culture of Quattrocento Florence. Discuss.
3. In the discussion of woman as an object of exchange, her appearance was carefully calculated to foster her transfer at the time of marriage; I found the comparison of the profile portrait to a still life positively chilling because it was so apt!
4. Wives and nuns, the only two Quattrocento options for women, both defined women in relationship to a male. How do these portraits perpetuate this system or contradict it?
5. What led to the eventual demise of the profile portrait?
6. On p. 15 Simons states: “Visual art…both shared and shaped social language and need not be seen as a passive reflection of pre-determining reality. For the representation of women, the profile form, and its particulars were well suited to the construction, rather than reflection, of an invisible ‘reality’.” In what other art historical cases has this been demonstrated?
7. It strikes me as ironic that the origins of the profile portrait are traced to dead men and male rulers. What has the female appropriation done to the prototype.
8. Are all portraits “anatomizing” in the end?
9. There is so much in this article to discuss!!! The optic fear of the woman’s gaze, the Medusa syndrome, the forced passivity of these portraits, and then calling Dr. Freud!
10. Do you see any danger in discussing these portraits in light of scopophilia, castration anxieties, fetishisation, or the proto-panopticon?


7 responses

  1. Question 2:
    Public appearance was very important in Quattrocento Florence. As is stated on Page 17, “men could win success and honour in many fields but only ornamentation and dress were available to women as ‘signs of their valour’.” Thus, the way that a woman dressed and appeared was very important. The high level of decoration and ornamentation in the dresses and, often, headpieces in the portraits included in this article elevates the status of the women who are portrayed. The idealization of the figure, especially the head and neck, does this as well. While these things are an important way for women to proclaim their status in a very visual and public society, they ultimately make statements about the wealth and status of the men who provided these items, as a woman would likely not have the means to obtain them for herself.

  2. #4) I think that just by existing in such quantities, the portraits reinforce the beliefs of women’s limited roles. I don’t know how “visible” these were to the public, but women seeing portraits of others so carefully made up with an evasive/docile gaze could have been greatly influenced by them. I see the portraits as patriarchal propaganda that help to remind women of their place(s) in society.

  3. This article is always an enjoyable read. Patricia Simons presents an interesting approach to the examination of Renaissance portraiture. Whether you are looking at someone in person, or in a portrait, the gaze can be quite intimidating force. Considering the need for Renaissance males to reaffirm their masculinity, it makes complete sense (although I don’t agree with it) for them to avoid depicting women facing forward (judging them). Female profile portraits became a means for Renaissance males to negate their anxiety. Males could now look at these portraits of women as a product for them to possess. It always bothered me how methodical it was to create portraits of women for men to examine to determine if they like the product or not. It reminds me very much of getting food samples at the grocery store, which is an analogy I never want to make in regards to women.

    Anyways I digress. The first time I read this article I could not help but find the similarities between Simon’s thesis and Hitchcock’s depiction of the icy blonde female in most of his works. This time I came across a different film reference. I don’t know how many of you have seen the 1980s romantic comedy Mannequin (it’s great), but I thought I should mention how similar it is. The whole concept behind this movie is that there is a woman trapped in the form of a mannequin and she only comes to life when her love interest (an artist no less!) gazes at her. Whenever another person is in near vicinity, she reverts back into her mannequin form, becoming a possession rather than a being once again. I’m sorry that I’m always making film references in class, I guess it’s just the way my brain works. I can’t wait to talk about the article in class, in particular the “Medusa Effect”.

  4. I think Simons has presented such an interesting idea here that arouses all my memories in the women studies class I took during my sophomore year. When I first looked at these female portraits in the Renaissance period, they possess a still-life quality with a conspicuous display on their hair and body. But they are very much cold and emotionless. Instead of looking like real human being, they merely seem to be a jewelry stand. It makes the female in the portrait a lifeless stone and an object subordinated to her husband. One thing I found particularly engrossing is the discussion on the anatomizing features of these portraits which set and construct a restricted standard of beauty scrutinizing the hair, throat, face, eyes, neck and size of breast. What struck me even further is that those Renaissance male masters even want more – well manner, chastity and virtue are all shown in one picture. The averted eyes are to represent her chastity eschewing any other man’s look.

    This kind of standardized exemplar painting reminds me of the Baroque period (the particular one I was thinking is Vigee Lebrun’s mother and two daughters). Even though the main theme is mostly religious related, it teaches people moral lessons about the social and family order

  5. The difference between the portrayal of men and women in this era, made me think about how the culture really separated women from their individuality in this mindset and culture. They were portrayed in flat paintings meant to show their family´s wealth and power. The profile portrait´s focus on household surroundings showed a kind of loyalty and tribute to their family and future husband, in the sense that they were not supposed to explore the knowledge of the world and build their own character separate from their male counterparts.They characterized on the basis of their husband or father, and displayed publicly as a kind of decorative jewel to compliment them.
    The entire prospect of women´s portrayal in paintings showing only their profile, made me think of how women were supposed to show certain a disconnection to the outside world, focusing on their family instead, while men´s portrayal were infront of landscapes.

    It also made me think of how eye contact had some significance at this time. As in the street, women were not supposed to have eye-contact with especially male peers, I believe that was displayed and conveyed in the way women were painted as well. I remember a painting I saw a couple of years ago of a woman facing out. Though, her eyes were constructed in a way that made you uncertain whether or not she actually made eye-contact with the viewer or not.

  6. 4. I guess these portraits both perpetuate and contradict the system. They were created, for the most part, by men for other men to gaze upon. As we discussed, a portrait like this was for “showy” purposes, to demonstrate how much wealth and worth the husband and his family possessed.
    The paintings only really seem to contradict the system if you take them a little out of context. The subjects of these portraits are solely women (with the exception of that one with the guy peeking through the window), which is a change. Prior to these paintings, even the Madonna was rarely depicted without “child”, who was male. I think these things are important to consider, but don’t necessarily make up for the facts that the portraits were created by and for men.

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