My Daily Art Display today is the oil on canvas painting entitled Portrait of a Man, sometimes known as A Man with a Quilted Sleeve, painted around 1510 by Titian and which now hangs in the National Gallery, London. There is some doubt as to the identity of the figure in the portrait. Some art historians would have us believe that it is a portrait of Ludovico Aristo, the Italian poet whilst others believe it to be a portrait of a member of the noble and very wealthy Barbarigo family of Venice, who were early patrons of the young artist. It is also possible that it is an early self portrait of the artist himself, as in those days a number of Renaissance artists used the genre of self portraiture as a means by which their standing in the art world could be enhanced.
As was the case of many of Titian’s portraits, the artist had the ability of giving his subject a flattering and dignified appearance. The sitter looks directly out at us. How would you describe the sitter’s expression? There is an air of self-confidence and determination in his thoughtful gaze, which is enhanced by the relaxed and calm manner of his posture. Is there a tinge of arrogance in the way he gazes out at us? He is almost but not quite smiling. There is nonchalance in his expression. Baldassare Castiglione, the Italian courtier, diplomat and famous Renaissance author wrote a book about Courtiers and the way they dress and their manners and he sums up the way grace and courtesy will triumph and be the hallmark of a refined man. Maybe the expression on Titian’s Man with the Quilted Sleeve follows Castiglione’s rule that encapsulates the secret of the class of a refined man, for the author wrote:
“…In so far as one may, flee affectation as if it were a sheer and treacherous precipice; and perhaps to propose a new idea, employ in all things a certain casual unconcern that will disguise artfulness and demonstrate what is done and said to be done effortlessly, as if giving the matter no thought…”
This concept of “casual unconcern” became a guiding principal in painting in the 16th century.
Note the stone parapet on which the subject’s arm rests. If you look carefully one can see the artist’s monogram, “ T V ” (Tiziano Vecellio) carved into to it. This addition of a parapet or balustrade was a favoured convention of Venetian painters, which gives a separation between the observer’s space and the space occupied by the subject of the painting. In this case, the parapet also acts as a hard textural contrast to the softness of the blue sleeve.
The prominence of the man in the painting is enhanced by the plain and dark background. Blue is the predominant colour of the man’s clothes and this gives the painting both a feeling of restraint and coolness. What detail strikes you first with this painting? Is it the man’s face and his facial expression or maybe it is the full, quilted blue sleeve in the foreground that captures your attention? In tomorrow’s offering I will look at Jan van Eyck’s painting Man in a Turban and again the question is raised as to what we focus on, -the sitter’s face or the bright red turban? However, the one thing that is outstanding about this portrait is the detail of that blue satin sleeve. It is beautifully painted. One almost feels that by reaching out one could touch the expensive fabric and smooth down the folds. One is being shown quality material at its best. Look carefully how the artist has painted the stitching of the satin in such great detail. Note also how the artist shows a billowing effect of the soft quilted puffed-sleeve with its many folds.
It is an enigmatic painting and the more times one looks at it, the more one discovers. It is a veritable gem.