On ViewMetropolitan Museum
December 21, 2011 – March 18, 2012
Sandro Botticelli’s “Portrait of a Lady at a Window” (c. 1470 – 75),included in The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini at the Metropolitan Museum,is a beautiful, philosophically complex painting. The lady occupies a space that hovers between the perspectival or pictorial and the symbolic. She stands at a window, her right hand resting gently on the frame. The space behind her seems totally credible yet upon further examination, impossibly narrow and without a clear sense of where the floor might be. Just as the depiction of the lady herself, the space is beautiful, severe, grave, and imperfect. In fact, everything about the painting is utterly beautiful: the geometry of the background and the expression of the figure is severe and solid yet also delicate and eerily translucent. The painting—made of tempera on wood—and the effect of translucency achieved with the material, which was often applied in layers of hair-thin brush marks, cedes nothing to oil painting. The spell cast on me by this work is created by these contradictory qualities: exquisite representational detail but odd detailing, and a rigorous spatial program that doesn’t stand up to reason, one that is classical yet somehow also Gothic and contemporary. I’m more entranced by this contradictory state of representation than that of later Italian Renaissance paintings, where the figure is rendered with complete three-dimensional verisimilitude within a space where perspectival relations between figures, objects, architecture, and landscape have been fully integrated and naturalized into practice.