Portrait of Isabella d'Este (Titian)

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Oil on canvas, 102 cm × 64 cm (40 in × 25 in), c 1534-36. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Portrait of Isabella d'Este (or Isabella in Black) is an oil-on-canvas painting by the Italian painter Titian created between 1534 and 1536. It likely shows the Marquess of Mantua, Isabella d'Este (1474–1539), daughter of Ercole I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, and Eleanor of Naples. Although shown here as a young woman, Isabella was around 62 by the time the work was painted.[1] She was socially ambitious and seems to have been aware of the effect paintings by renowned artists might have on her reputation and prestige - she commissioned other portraits by Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea Mantegna.[2] Isabella in Black is today in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

It is one of two portraits Titian painted of her; Isabella in Red (or Aged Isabella) of 1529 is known only through a Peter Paul Rubens copy. It showed a more aged and matronly Isabella, but she was so displeased with the picture that she asked for a second idealised portrait, showing how she thought she looked forty years earlier.[3] Art historian Lionel Cust mentions that Isabella's fame and renown was not due to "beauty, but to intellect and character".[4] Fred Kleiner wrote that the work is a "distinctive portrayal of his poised and self-assured patron that owes little to its model".[5]

Identity of sitter[edit]

Romano's portrait 1531 changed identification from Isabella d'Este to her successor Margherita Paleologa
Inhomogeneities in eye and hair colours plus eyebrows

Portrait of Isabella d'Este is described as a portrait of the Queen of Cyprus (inventory list of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria in 1659) and was identified by an inscription on an etching by Lucas Vorsterman of a copy by Peter Paul Rubens. This identification is denied by Titian experts Leandro Ozzola and Wilhelm Suida.[3] Ozzola identified Titian's La Bella (Palazzo Pitti, Florence) as the youthful portrait, because of the more cajoling idealisation and similarities to other portraits of Isabella (i.e. 'Ambras Miniature', KHM Vienna).[6] Rona Goffey identifies Isabella based on the sleeve knots of her gown, which contain a pattern known to have been commissioned by her. Other identifying clues include the characteristic plunging neckline and elaborate headdress,[7] but the related portrait by Giulio Romano 1531 (Royal Collection, London) changed identification from Isabella d'Este to Margaret Paleologa in the last years.[8] Her eye colours light-gray is contrast to the other portraits in which they are brown and her eyebrows do not match, too.


Isabella was portrayed a number times in her youth. She was betrothed to Francesco Gonzaga in 1480 when she was 6; they married when she was 16. She was painted by Cosme Tura as a child and on a number of occasions around the time of her wedding, a period during which she was honoured by the striking of a commemorative medal.[4] She was critical of a portrait by Andrea Mantegna completed after 1493, and by the 1510s became very weary of representations of her likeness. She seems to have feared the effects of age, and a short woman, worried she was getting stout.[9]

Ruben's copy of Titian's 1529 Isabella in Red. Isabella was 55 when the original was painted, but she was unhappy with her matronly appearance and requested Titian paint a second portrait, showing her as a woman in her 20s.

She retained very strong ideas for the rest of her life as to how she should be portrayed. From the 1520s she asked that she be painted from written descriptions - with the rational that words captured more closely a person's essence than life sittings. This was convenient for Titian, who was much sought after as a partraitist, disliked travel, and anyway prided himself on the fact that he could capture a likeness from written description. Nonetheless, she rejected his first portrait, the now lost Isabella in red of 1529, feeling it did not flatter, and five years later asked that he paint a second. The complaints registered of the first painting indicate that the last thing sought by the patron was anything approaching a likeness. There was displeasure with the portrayal of her nose, posture, costume, facial expression, and the highlighting of her squint.[10]

Drawing of Isabella in her youth for an intended portrait, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.

Isabella sought to influence Titian by sending him a 1511 portrait painted by Francesco Raibolini, called Francia, which showed her as a young woman and highlighted her girlish beauty.[11] This work was in turn based on an even earlier portrait (probably Lorenzo Costa or Leonardo's drawing) and her half-sister Lucrezia d'Este-Bentivoglio's oral description.[1][12] Francia was given the opportunity to travel to Mantua so that Isabella could sit, but he declined, believing that he would paint better from the drawing and written description. This was convenient for Isabella, who wrote to him that he had "indeed made us far more beautiful by your art than nature ever made us". Yet she had later doubts that this work was how she was to be definitely seen and remembered by; she believed it made her eyes look "too black" and that the shadows were too heavy, and asked that both be lightened.[13][14]

Titian was assisted by the literary description of Isabella by Gian Giorgio Trissino. Isabella was so pleased with his second, idealised, work that she wrote, "The portrait by Titian's hand is of such a pleasing type that we doubt that we were ever, at the age he represents, of such beauty that is contained in it."[15]

Others were not so impressed by the obvious deceit of the final Isabella in Black. Contemporary writer and satirist Pietro Aretino described the final painting as "dishonestly ugly" and a "supremely dishonestly embellished" that displayed undeserved "white teeth" and "ivory eyelashes".[3] Art historians examining the work tend to focus on her vanity, while largely acknowledging that court women of the time were on public display and expected to be physically pleasing and personally charming while at the same time showing signs of modesty and chastity.[16] This was not the first time that Titian had flattered a sitter with a rejuvenated, retrospective, or idealised image; his portrait of Philip II of Spain shows the king, who was puny in life, as a military hero bathed by light to grant both an aura to the hero and an actual halo.[1]


Titian second painting concentrates on her high social rank, her forceful personality, intelligence and on second hand accounts of her beauty. Isabella was a collector of antique and contemporary art, and as a powerful patron of culture was in part responsible for developing a highly refined court in Mantua. Because of this Titian, as a sometimes commissioned painter, would have been economically dependent, and so keen to flatter and pay tribute to his sitter. Although she is portrayed as a beautiful, much younger woman, the viewer is left in no doubt as to her elevated social status and cultural sophistication. She has a small rounded mouth, large oval eyes and dark, arched eyebrows. She has pale skin but rosy cheeks, and a dimple at the end of her chin.[7] There is a duality in her facial expression; although she has soft features, her strong and forceful personality is evident, accentuated by the fact that her body is stiff and she sits upright, giving her an air of the imperious.[17]

Her red (vs. blond) hair is bound in an updo, and she wears a sumptuous balzo. Her gown is richly embroidered with fur, velvet and silk, it's sleeves decorated with gold and silver trim.[3] In places the silk is lined with jewels. The work reflects Titian's tendency to emphasis his subject's hands, with the elaborately decorated and finely detailed sleeves serve to draw the viewers attention towards her hands.[5]


  1. ^ a b c Hope, Fletcher, et al, 38
  2. ^ Kleiner, 611
  3. ^ a b c d Cagli, 98
  4. ^ a b Cust, 286
  5. ^ a b Kleiner, 610
  6. ^ Leandro Ozzola, Isabella d'Este e Tiziano, in Bollettino d'arte, 1931, p. 491-494 Download: http://www.bollettinodarte.beniculturali.it/opencms/multimedia/BollettinoArteIt/documents/1407155929929_06_-_Ozzola_491.pdf
  7. ^ a b Goffen, 86-87
  8. ^ http://www.royalcollection.org.uk - item RCIN 405777
  9. ^ Cagli, 290
  10. ^ Langdon, 68
  11. ^ Sally Hickson, Giovanni Francesco Zaninello of Ferrara and the portrait of Isabella d'Este by Francesco Francia, Renaissance Studies Vol. 23 No. 3 (2009), pp. 288-310
  12. ^ The Craft of art: originality and industry in the Italian Renaissance, Bruce Cole: Titian and the Idea of Originality in the Renaissance (pp. 86-112), Georgia 1995, ISBN 0820316482
  13. ^ Findlen, 330
  14. ^ Ladis et al, 100
  15. ^ Clarke, Terence. "Masters Of Venice, At The De Young Museum, San Francisco". The Huffington Post, 29 November 2011. Retrieved 21 July 2013.
  16. ^ Findlen, 331
  17. ^ Kennedy, 50


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