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Review: Early Modern Faces: European Portraits, 1480-1780

D. Eric Bookhardt on paintings and prints at Newcomb Art Gallery



The people pictures we see around us today usually look far removed from Renaissance old master portraits, yet both can reflect "modern" ideas. Although this Early Modern Faces expo at Newcomb Art Gallery sticks with the Renaissance and related traditions, traces of modernity often lurk beneath the surface. Paolo Veronese's circa 1580 Portrait of a Lady as Saint Agnes becomes almost mind boggling as we realize the lady in question is a flashy blonde decked out in opulent gold brocade, silk and lace. She looks more flirtatious than pious, and there is no way to know if the little tome in her hand is a prayer book or something spicier. Even the little white lamb in her lap — a symbol of sainthood — looks curiously like a pet poodle. Further investigation reveals that many young, soon-to-be-wed women of Renaissance Italy had their portraits painted as saints to emphasize their purported "purity," even if they ended up looking more like Renaissance versions of Vogue glamour shots.

  While there is no shortage of virtuoso brushwork by vintage art stars here, these masterworks are sometimes startlingly simpatico with both antique and avant-garde styles. Paul van Somer's 1620 Elizabeth, Viscountess Faulkland (pictured) reveals a smirking noblewoman in an outrageous Peruvian colonial-looking outfit, but her hairdo is even wilder, a kind of medieval beehive with a filigree of flowers and lace. An extravaganza worthy of Max Ernst, this somehow recalls both Frida Kahlo and The Bride of Frankenstein. And Henry VIII, Mary I and Will Somers the Jester, an anonymous mid-16th century court painting of imposingly outfitted royals looking like they're plotting palace intrigue as a sinister jester skulks grimly in the shadows, is also improbably cinematic. Curated by Newcomb art historian Anne Dunlop, and featuring many works loaned by Houston's stellar Sarah Campbell Blaffer Collection, this insightful old master portrait show suggests that, rather than a fixed period of time, the aesthetic meaning of "modern" involves a certain psychologically expressive state of mind.

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