Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Portrait of a Lady in Yellow
  • Creator: Baldovinetti, Alesso, painter
  • Description:

    This painting depicts the profile view of an unidentified noble lady. The profile view was the norm in portraiture for both men and women in Florence during the 1470s, and this particular portrait relates to multiple late-fifteenth century portraits of women that have been associated with marriage. The artist’s depiction of the sitter highlights the tension between realism and idealism in portraiture during the Florentine Quattrocento. The lady’s prominent nose is balanced by her artfully arranged hair, which is bound by a white headband decorated with a pearl ornament. Her features are softened by her pale skin, blond hair, and rosy lips, all of which conform to fifteenth-century standards of ideal beauty. She also wears a thin, black band around her forehead, which is enhanced by her fashionably plucked hairline, and a necklace of dark orange beads with a pendant set with a pearl. The sleeve of her gown is boldly embellished with three palm leaves bound by a ribbon and framed by two gold-veined feathers, and this detail is given equal prominence with the lady’s profile.

    In fifteenth-century Florence, the more important a dress was, the more elaborate the sleeves were. Judging by the detail and hugeness of the sitter’s sleeve, this was a dress for an important ceremony, most likely a wedding. Scholars theorize that the emblem on her sleeve is the heraldic device of her husband’s family. This idea is supported by the fact that the decoration does not convincingly follow the folds in her garment and stands out prominently, thus capturing the attention of the viewer. The rich apparel worn by young women in portraits were often gifts and displays of spousal generosity. The creation of the bride’s wedding dress was a family project involving all of the groom’s relatives in a variety of stylistic decisions. The groom chose the motif that would richly decorate the shoulder and sleeves of the gown. He would buy gold and pearls necessary for the embroidery, and discuss every detail of the garment with artisans. It was the groom’s duty to dress his wife in a style befitting his social status because once the wife wore the clothes provided for her in public, she became a vehicle for displaying the wealth, power and influence of her husband’s family. By dressing her in clothing of his choosing, the groom was also asserting power over the bride on a personal level because women who dressed themselves ornately were regarded as having assumed an unnatural authority. Susan Stuard has pointed to the self-fashioning that fourteenth century Italian women created through embroidery. Sumptuary law banned a wide variety of figural designs with which women decorated their clothing and made public statements.

    Besides the sleeves of her dress, another important feature of her appearance is her jewelry. Like her wedding gown, jewels were often gifts given to her by her husband and were displays of his wealth and power. In this portrait, the beads and pearls around the sitter's neck reinforce the idea that she was a member of a prominent family and had entered into an advantageous marriage. However, a bride’s jewelry might not remain with her throughout her lifetime. Husbands were able to re-purpose the presents at any time for many reasons. Jewels could be passed down to newer brides in the husband’s lineage, and they could also be pawned or sold to meet financial crises.
  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public Domain
  • Subject (See Also): Embroidery Fashion Jewelry Marriage Profile Portraits
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 15
  • Date: 1465
  • Related Work:
  • Current Location: London, National Gallery
  • Original Location: Florence
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Paintings;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Tempera and oil on panel
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 62.9 cm/40.6 cm/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Brown, David Alan. Virtue & Beauty: Leonardo's Ginevra De' Benci and Renaissance Portraits of Women. Washington: National Gallery of Art. 2001. Pgs 90-95.
    Campbell, Lorne. Miguel Falomir. Jennifer Fletcher. Luke Syson. Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian. London: National Gallery Company. 2008. Pgs. 90-91.;
    Stuard, Susan Mosher. Gilding the Middle Ages: Luxury and Fashion in Fourteenth-Century Italy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2006. Pgs. 90-92, 118-119;
    Stuard, Susan Mosher. "Marriage Gifts and Fashion Mischief." The Medieval Marriage Scene: Prudence, Passion, Policy. Edited by Sherry Roush and Cristelle L. Baskins. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2005. Pgs. 178-185.