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The Ideal Woman

February 17, 2012

Master of the Castello Nativity (Italian, Florentine, active ca. 1445–75). Portrait of a Woman, probably 1450s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jules Bache Collection, 1949 (49.7.6)

«Do you know what the ideal woman looked like during the Renaissance?»

The portrait I selected is titled Portrait of a Woman by the Italian painter known as the "Master of the Castello Nativity." The sitter is most likely a teenage girl from Florence. This portrait, painted with tempera and gold in the 1450s, sparked my interest because of the details that the artist included. The young woman's head is adorned with a cap covered in pearls, and she wears a pearl necklace and a head brooch made of jewels and pearls. Pearls were not only costly but also symbolic of purity during the Renaissance. Her elaborate jewelry, hairstyle, and clothing suggest that this portrait was probably a bridal portrait.

The woman is painted in profile and her facial expression seems to be quite serious. Her expression makes me wonder what she was thinking about or the purpose of the portrait. Was it painted for her new husband so he could show his friends how beautiful and rich his new wife looked?

The profile format was popular for bridal portraits in the fifteenth century. Some say this is because of the influence of the Renaissance interest in antiquity (ancient Roman coins and medals, studied at the time, depicted rulers in profile). The profile is also the best way to view someone's physical features. Poetry written by the fourteenth-century writer Petrarch described the ideal woman and her beauty: the ideal woman had blonde hair (which was often dyed), a high forehead (often created by plucking hairs from the hairline with tweezers), pale skin, and a long neck. People in the Renaissance believed that a woman's physical characteristics were a reflection of her beauty on the inside.

Do we try and fulfill societal ideals, or do we try and break free?

We welcome your responses to this question below.

Jamilah undefined

Jamilah is a member of the Museum's Teen Advisory Group.