Campin’s Portrait of a Woman (Take a Closer Look at Art, 2b)

Part 2 of an analysis of Campin’s Portrait of a Woman. For Part 1, see this post.

Robert Campin, Portrait of a Woman, 1420s. London, National Gallery. Image: Wikiart

Note: The reproduction above – the best I could find on the Net – is not very good at reproducing her skin tone. We should all take a field trip to London.

Drapery

The wimple, wrapped tightly around her face and under her chin, covers her hair completely, but by its dull texture and unobtrusive color sets off her beautiful bone structure and skin tone.  The immaculate, elaborately arranged folds (note the two pins securing them a few inches back from her forehead) also show us something of her character: she is tidy, clean, meticulous. Much more important, however, is the way the wimple emphasizes certain facial features. The folds pulled out by her temples echo and thereby emphasize the shape of her eyes. The shape of her upper lip is echoed in the small dip at the bottom of the wimple, where it rests against her dress.

The plain brown dress she wears is so dark it almost fades into the background. Covering her body completely, it, too, helps focus attention on her hands and face. A brightly colored costume or one of rich brocade, such as that in Bellini’s Doge Leonardo Loredan, would make a very different statement about the sitter’s character, as well as diverting attention from her features.

Giovanni Bellini, Doge Leonardo Loredan, after 1501. London, National Gallery. Image: Wikipedia (higher-res image is available here)

Statement

Although her dress is subdued, she clearly cares about her personal appearance. Given the ring and fur, she probably could have afforded a more elaborate outfit, had she so desired. The fact that she doesn’t feel the need for an extravagant costume or hairstyle suggests self-confidence.

Illumination

The light (shining on the sitter from above and to our right) accentuates her bone structure by the bright areas that appear on her forehead, left cheekbone, nose, and chin. Drawing attention to the eyes and mouth, it also clearly reveals her expression. Contrast Rembrandt’s portrait of a woman, where the face is half in dense shadow.

Rembrandt, Portrait of Hendrickje Stofells, 1659. London, National Gallery. Image: Wikipedia

On the wimple, the lighting creates complex patterns of dark lines and shadows in the folds above the brow, to either side of the eyes, and below the chin, another device that helps focus the attention on the face.

Robert Campin, Portrait of a Woman, 1420s. London, National Gallery. Image: Wikiart

Color

Like her pose, the colors of the drapery in Campin’s portrait are subdued and sedate. The neutral tones (brown and off-white) set off the rosy, healthy tones of the her skin. Like the pose, drapery and lighting, the colors are carefully calculated to bring the viewer’s attention to the woman’s face and hence to her character, rather than to the details of her costume or her setting. Contrast Titian’s Portrait of a Man (also known as Man with a Blue Sleeve), where the color and texture of the man’s costume are important feature of the painting.

Titian, Man with a Blue Sleeve, ca. 1510. London, National Gallery. Image: Wikipedia

Or compare Hans Holbein the Younger’s Ambassadors, where the drapery and props are used as much as the sitters’ faces to indicate their character and interests.

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors (Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve), 1533. London, National Gallery. Image: Wikipedia (higher-res image here)

Texture

Why is the woman’s wimple matte rather than shiny? Because the contrast between the matte, off-white fabric, with its starched folds, and the slight sheen of the woman’s skin as it covers bone and muscle is particularly effective in bringing out the woman’s beauty. A shiny fabric such as the silver satin used in Savoldo’s St Mary Magdalene Approaching the Sepulchre would, like an elaborate brocade, distract the viewer from the sitter’s face.

Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo, St Mary Magdalene Approaching the Sepulchre, ca. 1535-1540. London, National Gallery. Image: Wikipedia (Note: I think this reproduction is far too dark: I’ve seen an image in a book where the silver is so bright it glows.)

Robert Campin, Portrait of a Woman, 1420s. London, National Gallery. Image: Wikiart

Focus

The crisp, sharply focussed details give the impression that Campin recorded  the precise appearance of a very specific individual – although in fact he must have been highly selective in choosing which details to depict.

Setting

The background is dark and blank, offering no distraction from the sitter.

Contrast

A particularly revealing contrast to Campin’s portrait is Baldovinetti’s Portrait of a Lady, done a few decades later in Italy.

Baldovinetti, Portrait of a Woman, ca. 1465. London, National Gallery. Image: Wikipedia

In the fabric and style of her gown, in her jewelry, and in her elaborately plucked and twisted coiffure, Baldovinetti’s sitter is the epitome of fashion. The decoration on her sleeve is almost certainly the heraldic device of her family. Her bone structure, in profile, is so flattened that we might not recognize her if we met her on the street. She is expressionless, and so pale she looks hardly alive. In profile, of course, she can make no eye contact with us. The end result is that, unlike Campin’s sitter, Baldovinetti’s seems to have no character of her own. She is what fashion and her family decree her to be, and this painting is merely a physical record of her appearance.

Summary

Subject: portrait of a woman in medieval or Renaissance dress

Emphasis: on the face, especially the eyes and mouth; secondarily on the bone structure and skin (by the use of light and color, and by their contrast with the wimple and dress).

Theme: The theme of a portrait is the character of the sitter; what do we know about this woman? She appears sedate but has hidden, intriguing depths – probably not the mystical sort of depth, though, since her gaze is focused on something earthly, and her lips look intriguingly sensual. She’s beautiful and quite careful of her appearance, and confident enough not to have to draw attention by an elaborate costume or hairstyle.

More

  • A companion portrait to this one shows a somewhat older man who is probably this woman’s husband.
  • Although Campin did an exquisite job of depicting this woman’s features and character, she’s probably not his ideal of beauty: compare the face of the Madonna in Virgin and Child Before a Firescreen (also at the National Gallery), which is very similar to the face of the Madonna in his Annunciation at the Cloisters (Metropolitan Museum of Art). At this period, the Madonna tends to be shown as the most beautiful woman the artist can imagine, so Campin’s Madonnas are more likely to be his ideal woman than the sitter of this portrait was.
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About Dianne L. Durante

I’m an independent scholar and freelance writer /lecturer on art and art history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are 3 volumes on Alexander Hamilton, *Central Park: The Early Years,* *Innovators in Sculpture* (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and two videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see https://www.patreon.com/diannedurante .

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