Apr 23 2019
Exhibition review: Painting the Civil Body

The Renaissance Nude at the Royal Academy, until 2 June 2019 & Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver, until 19 May 2019

My visit to the V&A’s Clothworkers’ Centre in London coincided with two exhibitions, The Renaissance Nude at the Royal Academy, and Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver at the National Portrait Gallery. Though a hundred years and the English Channel separate early Renaissance Continental nudes and Elizabethan and Jacobean miniatures, ideas around civility and exposing (or concealing) the body brought these exhibitions together in many ways. Pale skin with hints of oyster-pink and blue-green hues seemed ever present, whether in stark, defiant display or enhanced by coy degrees of exposure. Both exhibitions, when viewed through the lens of elite self-fashioning and attitudes to the body, have a great deal to say about civility and the body’s relationship to power.

The Renaissance Nude explored how naked bodies came to occupy the European imagination to the extent they did. Avoiding grand narrative claims, the exhibition explored the multifaceted and at times conflicting responses to the human form emerging in different parts of Europe. From Leonardo’s anatomical drawings to Christian mysticism, Greek mythology to gruesome apocalyptic sketches, the exhibition demonstrated how humanism and the classical revival existed alongside and sometimes in tension with Christian morality. Paintings like Perugino’s Combat Between Love and Chastity, commissioned by Isabella d’Este in Mantua, provoke a consideration of the function of art in female pleasure and collecting. Beyond idealized forms, bodies marred by sin and punishment twisted and dragged their way across the canvases and oak panels, emitting silent screams as they came to terms with their own damnation. Violence, voyeurism, and vulnerability lurked even behind the most symmetrical and proportioned bodies.

As its name highlights, Elizabethan Treasures brought to life the glittering and jewel-like wonder of miniatures, themselves often stored in ivory or gold boxes and worn as adornments on the body. The galleries presented a world as bright, esoteric, and enchanting as the objects within them, full of silver and cobalt, flickering gold meant to catch light and mimic fire, teasing glances and poignant reflections on death and memory. Undershirts spill suggestively out from slashed garments; unbuttoned and untied apparel suggest an intimacy between sitter and beholder. Garments are an important part of the interplay between secrecy and transparency that miniatures embody as objects of revelation, assisting in how individuals present their bodies and impart secret lusts or anxieties around death or rejection. These miniatures become spaces of technical ingenuity and memory, seduction and self-assertion, from Hilliard and Oliver’s self-portraits to those commissioned by middling and elite patrons. It is remarkable to see so many of these miniatures given pride of place, when they are all too often dwarfed in galleries by the larger paintings hanging on the walls.

Having spent the week investigating the stitches, patterns, and tailoring of 1620s doublets and smocks at the archive, I was struck by the brilliant ways in which the particular cuts, slashes, and tailoring of the clothed body, not just the undressed one, could convey sensuousness and desire. I recalled the lines from Spenser’s Faerie Queene: ‘all that might his melting heart entyse/To her delights, she unto him bewrayd:/The rest hid underneath, him more desirous made’. Laced and unlaced, these bodies stand, sit, and lean in their tiny casings, pinned to a playing card, framed by gardens, bedrooms, and deathbeds. In the world outside the court, pinking (the deliberate slashing of clothes) and costly, barely-there materials were heavily criticized. ‘Those silken fellows are but painted images, outsides, outsides’, warns a character in Thomas Dekker’s play, The Shoemaker’s Holiday (1604); ‘their inner linings are torn.’ At the early Stuart court, women’s bodices were cut so low that they were attacked for being both overly provocative and too masculine.

Lady Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset, c. sixteenth century. Private collection, Philip Mould Historical Portraits Image Library.

There is, of course, a politics to dressing and representation which is not entirely apparent in these exhibitions. This isn’t a critique of their scope. Rather, the exhibitions have led me to think much more about the construction and apparelling of early modern bodies on one hand, and the role of clothing in the expansionist initiatives of the English elite on the other. Jill Burke, who helped organize the Renaissance Nude exhibition, has previously raised attention to how Renaissance travel and ethnographic observation inflected the development of the nude in Western art. In her 2013 article, ‘Nakedness and Other Peoples: Rethinking the Italian Renaissance Nude’, Burke posits that Antonio Pisanello’s compelling drawing from 1426, Luxuria, may reflect Pisanello working with a live African model, though the exhibition shies away from dealing overtly with issues of enslavement or conquest. English political expansion, since it was legitimized under the guise of ‘civilizing’ others, often involved martial strength but also the politics of adorning or stripping the body. Commonplace books from the sixteenth century are rife with poetry about colonization in which desires to ‘civilize’ others involved subordinating the body to other styles and fashions. One poem from the 1620s envisioned a brutal scenario in which English colonists forcibly cut the hair of the Gaelic Irish to coerce them into submitting to English rule. Our way of seeing and understanding portraiture and elite identities might be honed by thinking more about the politics of looking and representation: of widening the frame, so to speak, to consider the implications of what was considered a subject and a style fit for painting, and what was not.

As art pieces, portraits of nudes or court miniatures may seem untouched or unrelated to the discussions of savagery and raw nature appearing so ubiquitously in colonial writings of the time. But such is the objective of civility, to seem gracefully uninhibited by the trappings of convention and form while conforming to them perfectly. Many of the portraits of the Jacobean elite, as the National Portrait Gallery points out, were based on masque performances. These brought Native Americans, Africans, and Gaelic Irish characters into elite spectacles as fawning, demonic, idolatrous, or topsy-turvy creatures alongside witches, apes, and ‘gypsies’. The poise and opulence captured in miniatures of women in their masque clothing mirrors the performative denouement of the masques themselves, where chaos and disorder are vanquished by a triumphant civility asserted against the tattered clothes, bare feet, wild animals, and unruly gestures of the anti-masque. In Anne of Denmark’s ‘Masque of Queens’ in 1609, the queen’s own body became a canvas, painted in black pigment to play an ‘Ethiopian’. In the miniature below, Anne identified herself with classical antiquity and masque apparel, while the motto, servo per regnare, made a statement of political responsibility:

Anne of Denmark in masque attire by Isaac Oliver, c. 1610, Royal Collections Trust.

Texts in favour of colonialism discussed conquest and plantation as things that happened, like art and poetry, through visualization. Referring to Christopher Columbus’ first encounters with indigenous groups, Peter Martyr, in a text translated by Richard Eden in 1555, encouraged his readers to envision the possibilities of creating an imperial masterpiece out of blank canvas. ‘For like as razed or unpainted tables, are apt to receive what forms so ever are first drawn thereon by the hand of the painter, even so these naked and simple people…by conversation with our men, shake off their fierce and native barbarousness’. The English lawyer and colonist Luke Gernon described Ireland by invoking the imagination as a tool for picturing expansion: ‘Your imagination transports yourself into Ireland…I will depaynt her more lively and more sensible to your intelligence’. The ideal body was not just proportioned, but under control; it could be seen and surveyed. Behold Virginia, the geographer Samuel Purchas urged his readers in 1625, and ‘view her lovely looks…survey her Heavens, Elements, Situation…her well-proportioned limbs and members…and in all these you shall see, that she is worth the wooing and loves of the best husband.’ A personified Virginia, glowing like a virgin bride, became as a body in a portrait, presenting herself to be appraised.

What links these miniatures and colonial aspirations most tangibly are perhaps, in the end, the clothes themselves. The demand for silk, dyes, textiles, precious stones and metals, pearls, and feathers drove the imperial impulse in court coteries. Women began stitching whales and monsters from maps and travel literature in their embroideries. Anne of Denmark and the Earl of Southampton supported the silkworm industry that the king’s silk expert sought to transplant to Virginia. The inclusion of Francis Drake’s miniature in the gallery is a testament to the role of explorers in fuelling elite consumption. Drake – apparently disdained even by the porters at the Middle Temple for his seafaring upbringing – used portraiture to assert himself as a gentleman and to celebrate his oceanic exploits and the commodities he brought back with him.

Detail of a woman’s embroidered smock, c. 1620s, Victoria & Albert Museum. Image is author’s.

These exhibitions provide valuable opportunities to view these masterpieces up close, and to consider how early modern individuals regarded nakedness and the body. How the ‘hand of the painter’ created, preserved, beautified, and codified these views can tell us a great deal about the visual landscape of Renaissance civility. This also invites an exploration of the colonial gaze in relation to the period eye – how gentlemen visualized colonial intervention through ideas of ‘art’ and artifice, and placed seduction in the service of political expansion.

Lauren Working

Research at the V&A Clothworkers’ Centre was made possible by a grant by the Pasold Research Fund for textile history.