Renaissance Self-Portraiture

The Visual Construction of Identity and the Social Status of the Artist

Joanna Woods-Marsden

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The autonomous self-portrait, a central mode of expression in Western art, was a Renaissance invention. This book explores for the first time the genesis and early development of this important genre as it took place in Italy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Joanna Woods-Marsden examines a series of self-portraits in Renaissance Italy and their relation to the social status of art and artists. She argues that these self-images represented the aspirations of their creators to change the status of art and thereby their own social standing.

The book provides a rich account of the intellectual and social context in which the Italian Renaissance artist worked. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, an individual’s social status depended upon his occupation’s proximity to—or distance from—manual labor. The visual arts, unlike literature or music, were defined as manual, and their creators were considered craftsmen. Seeking to reclassify art as intellectual, the artistic community denied the role played by manual execution in the creation of art. Woods-Marsden investigates how artists from Mantegna and Alberti to Raphael, Parmigianino, Titian, Sofonisba Anguissola, and Annibale Carracci constructed themselves pictorially and how they used these self-representations. She shows how self-portraits mediated between the creator’s artistic self and his or her Renaissance audience. Those artists who experimented with autonomous self-portraiture usually worked for courts, Woods-Marsden finds, and in the highly competitive court culture, the artists’ celebrations of themselves in self-images were part of their jostlings for increased social recognition and position.

Joanna Woods-Marsden is associate professor of art history at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"Woods-Marsden presents a clear and convincing argument that Italian artists in the 15th and 16th centuries used autonomous self-portraits to raise the status of artists from craftsmen/technicians to intellectuals. She writes clearly and develops her arguments through case studies ranging form Alberti to Michelangelo. . . . The book is highly convincing. Highly recommended."—Library Journal

"The book provides a rich account of the intellectual and social context in which the Italian Renaissance artist worked."—Antiques Journal

"Woods-Marsden has produced an important new contribution. . . . The book is beautifully produced with good color reproductions and helpful details. Highly recommended [for] undergraduates through faculty."—Choice

"Woods-Marsden’s study of the variety of forms of artistic self-expression left by some of the artists who created these works, was long overdue. This lavishly illustrated volume brings together self-portraits from the works of twenty-five artists in a variety of different media. . . . [This book is] an excellent survey of autonomous self-representation of Italian Renaissance artists and will surely become essential reading for anyone interested in the field."—Gabriele Neher, The Art Book

"[A] splendid book. . . . The illustrations are spectacular . . . through them [Woods-Marsden] shows us the search for self and the construction of self in the individual artist’ self portraits, all the while setting this in the context of the whole society’s search for self-definition in the new age and the new freedom to put the emphasis on man as maker of his environment and his own personality."—Chronique

"The bibliography is extensive and includes references that will serve as a valuable compendium on this topic particularly in its cross-disciplinary perspective. . . . [This] book will serve as a good teaching resource for students of Renaissance. . . . The contexual analysis of the visual and social construction of identity within Italian Renaissance culture as exemplified within this study will offer multiple avenues for future scholarship and provide those whom we teach with a scholarly discourse that opens the analysis of visual culture."—Carol Janson, Sixteenth Century Journal

“Woods-Marsden is to be complimented for bringing together an important subset of portrait imagery and for providing an opening wedge into a reconsideration not only of the changing role of the artist in the culture, but of the artist’s own role in the creation of a public persona.”—John T. Paoletti, CAA Reviews

“Joanna Woods-Marsden’s Renaissance Self-Portraiture is the most ingensive and scrupulous study of the subject so far.”—James Hall, London Review of Books

ISBN: 9780300075960
Publication Date: November 10, 1998
296 pages, 9 1/2 x 11 1/4
100 b/w + 40 color illus.