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Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of Giovanna de' Tornabuoni – 1489 – Madrid, Thyssen Bornemisza Museum

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Giovanna is shown in stiff profile illuminated by a searching light. Her sumptuous costume and elaborate hairstyle as well as the few objects displayed in the minimalist background are realised with hard-edged clarity. The rigid profile was a favoured format for Florentine portraits of this period (resulting in a formality which had already been discarded by some near contemporaries such as Leonardo). Her face is expressionless, denoting a certain gravitas and the proportions of her body are idealised, especially her unfeasibly elongated neck.

The portrait was commissioned by Lorenzo Tornabuoni after his wife's death in childbirth in 1488. The precise date is conveniently displayed in the text of the 'cartelino' which appears behind Giovanna. The Latin inscription is a quote from the Roman poet Martial and translates as 'Would that you could represent character and mind! There would be no more beautiful painting on earth' 1488. Giovanna’s identity is confirmed by her inclusion, sporting the same complex hairstyle, as a witness to The Visitation, a fresco by Ghirlandaio in the Tornabuoni chapel (in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence). A contemporary medallion featuring Giovanna also shows her with the same coiffure and supplies her name.

Her ostentatious gown and the pendant she wears featuring a large ruby and three pearls, together with the precious objects displayed in the recess behind her, attest to her status and the wealth of her husband. The Book - possibly a book of hours - signals her devoutness and also her education.

Domenico Ghirlandaio was part of a generation of talented Florentine artists born in the second quarter of the fifteenth century (including Andrea del Verrocchio and Sandro Botticelli). He achieved great success necessitating the establishment of a large workshop employing many apprentices. Michelangelo was one such trainee.

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James Abbott McNeill Whistler: Symphony in White, No. 3 – 1867 – Birmingham, Barber Institute

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Two women, one in white the other in a light cream dress, seem to be consumed by introspection – ennui pervades the their listless postures. To the left the young woman with red hair subsides onto one elbow and stares out at the viewer; the remnants of a flower lay beside her on the divan – some of the petals have been plucked, perhaps absent-mindedly. She is Joanna Heffernan, an Irish artists model who had been Gustave Courbet’s muse and was now Whistler’s mistress – apparently no shrinking violet. The other woman, lost in thought, sits on the floor, one arm extended on to the couch. It seems that her Japanese fan has eluded her grip and now rests against her leg. One feels that its owner is barely aware of its current location, so lost is she in her reverie.

The presence of the fan together with the blossom-laden shrubs which encroach from the right are emblematic of Whistler’s devotion to Japonisme – the considerable influence of the art of Japan on French and British art during the last half of the nineteenth century. This influence fed into the thinking of the Aesthetic movement, of which he was a leading advocate. He believed that an artist should not strive for representational accuracy, rather he or she should aspire to create a harmonious and decorative composition – a painting should be judged as a beautiful object and valued for its aesthetic impact rather than its subject matter. This was summed up at first in France as ‘l’art pour l’art’ which is usually translated as Art for Art’s Sake.

Whistler’s use of musical terms for his titles emphasised this attitude, using words such as ‘symphony’, ‘arrangement’ or ‘nocturne’ to drive home his focus on harmony and composition rather than verisimilitude.

Great Works of Western Art – links

English or French School: The Wilton Diptych – 1399
Hans Holbein the Younger: Sir Thomas More – 1527


Doors and Doorways

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Jain Temple, Ranakpur, Rajasthan, India

Delhi, Old Town

Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire

Cachi, Salta Province, Argentina