Antonello da Messina created the Portrait of a Young Gentleman in 1474. This is the picture of a man, as the title denotes, and we can presume that this is the actual likeness of an individual, as the characteristics of the face seem to be particularly telling even to the point of depicting unflattering details, like the big nose. Dressed primarily in black, with a grey undershirt, the man is presented in a three-quarter view staring directly at the viewer, confronting him/ her with what art historians call a ‘steady gaze’ (‘Portrait of a young gentleman’). The clothes of the man, although simple, seem to have been made from expensive materials, like silk (for the shirt) and velvet for the overcoat. This shows that this was most probably a man belonging to the upper classes. This is just one of a series of similar portraits created by the artist in the 1470’s in Sicily before da Messina went to Venice for a brief period of time. In these, he introduced an enigmatic smile that predates the famous mysterious smile in Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. It is believed that with this the artist wanted to portray not just the exterior characteristics of his subjects, but also their characters, their inner feelings and thoughts (Christiansen, 2010). This smile along with the intensity of the gaze, give the viewer the illusion that he/she is actually experiencing a real interaction with the man in the portrait (Christiansen, 2010). It is like the artist invites his audience to enter the painting he created, offering them a unique experience based on illusionary interaction.
The artist chose to depict only the bust of the man emerging from a black background. The style is linear, as da Messina used clear lines and defined sharply forms and planes in an attempt to create a highly realistic representation of a man. The light enters from the left, illuminating the man’s facial characteristics: his eyes, big, unflattering nose, full lips and mouth. The painting is created with oil colors, which is unusual for an Italian painting of the period. Italian artists of the time preferred to use tempera, unlike their northern colleagues. Da Messina is often credited with introducing oil painting in Italy (Christiansen, 2010). The Renaissance artist and writer Vasari, who wrote a book on the most famous artists of the Renaissance that was for many years considered authoritative, was the first who claimed this to be the case. However contemporary scholars have disputed this claim (‘Antonello da Messina’) and da Messina is no longer considered the man who brought oil painting in his country. Nevertheless, oil painting has been particularly helpful in this work of art, as it allowed the artist to easily create variations in tone and color, out of which the striking figure of the man emerges. These variations allowed the artist to also clearly delineate the different individual characteristics of his sitter, like his brown hair above the white skin of his face and the different textures of the painting, especially with regards to his clothes or curly hair.
This is an early Renaissance work of art, a painting created during the period when artists in Italy and the North started exploring new directions in art. In Italy, humanism did not only speak highly of the philosophy of the Classical age, but also aimed at combining it with Christian ideals, having at the same time at their center man and his potential for great achievement (Stokstad and Colthren, 2009, p. 594). Italian artists adopted this new philosophy leading artistic production to a whole new road. In the North, as in France and in Spain, artists also started to explore different ways to depict the world around them, everyone and everything that inhabited it. They excelled in portraiture, but also in the representation of great detail, often creating many different microcosms in a single canvas (Christiansen, 2010) Da Messina’s work is particularly interesting as it seems to be in dialogue with that of Northern artists more than any other Italian painter of his time. Although few things about his life and career are documented, and we cannot be certain if he ever travelled outside of Italy, it is known that Antonello da Messina was born and probably worked most of his life in Sicily. This was a place of trade and exchange of goods and ideas and the ideal place for an artist to come into contact with the work of Northern, Spanish and French artists and learn the way they dealt with each subject. The influence this had on his work was profound as different paintings he created show (Christiansen, 2010). But at the same time, da Messina was also an Italian artist, influenced by the things that went on in his own country during his time. Along with his interest in deep colors and details, he incorporated in his paintings the attention to geometry and line that served the unity of the picture and was evident in Italian art (Wilkin, 2006, p. 46, 48). His interest in depicting the inner character of his subjects and the mysterious smile he endowed so many of them, is in accordance with the humanist idea of ‘the movements of the mind’ (Christiansen, 2010). Da Messina wanted to explore more than the surface of the people he painted. He wanted to see their souls and show them in his work. This psychological dimension in many of his works – not just the portrait examined in this short essay- is probably da Messina’s most important contribution in European art. It is no coincidence that Christiansen (2010) calls him ‘the first truly European painter’. Antonello da Messina’s influence however, does not stop here. It is believed that during his only documented visit in Venice from 1475 to 1476, his work greatly influenced the emergence of Venetian portraiture and painting and artists like Giovanni Bellini (Christiansen, 2010). His rendering of landscapes is believed to have had an impact even in later generations and artists like Giorgione and Titian (‘Antonello da Messina’).
Even from this one work of art, a portrait of a young gentleman that is exhibited in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it is evident that Antonello da Messina was an important early Renaissance artist. Although not as well known as other Italian artists of the period, like Mantegna, Piero della Fransesca or Sandro Botticelli, he is nevertheless a pivotal figure in the history of art, whose life and work should be better studied if we want to have a more complete picture of how European painting evolved. His works can be seen in museums all over the world, and this particular portrait is today exhibited in the Philadelphia Museum of Arts.
Antonello da Messina. National Gallery, London, Collections. Retrieved: Dec. 7 2014, from http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/artists/antonello-da-messina
Christiansen, K. (2009). Antonello da Messina (ca 1430-1479). Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: Met Museum. Retrieved: Dec. 7, 2014 from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/mess/hd_mess.htm
Portrait of a young Gentleman (n.d.) Philadelphia Museum of Art, Collections. Retrieved: Dec. 5, 2014 from http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/101898.html
Stokstad, M. and Cothren, M.W. (2011). Art History, vol. II, 4th edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall
Wilkin, K. (2006). Antonello da Messina at the Met. New Criterion, 6, 45-49.