100 Works of Art: (Visual) Portrait of a Young Man, Sandro Botticelli

4. Portrait of a Young Man, Sandro Botticelli (c. 1480-5)

There are a few Botticelli paintings in the National Gallery which I enjoy looking at (in particular the Satyr mourning the dead nymph) but this seemingly nondescript little portrait is the one which really holds my attention.

According to the National, “Most portraits made in Florence and elsewhere in Italy were profile views.” Perhaps it is the unusually direct nature of his stare that comes from this full-face portrait that makes it arresting, but there is something about it which leads me towards invention.

Portrait of a Young Man by Sandro Botticelli
Portrait of a Young Man by Sandro Botticelli

His fur-lined clothes interest me, his eyes interest me, and the set of his mouth which seems slightly sorrowful interests me in the same way that the Mona Lisa’s smile has interested so many people throughout the ages since that portrait was completed.

There’s the question of who he was in relation to Botticelli: he’s young, and terribly handsome, and his clothes suggest that he wasn’t poor, although there’s none of the ornamentation and garnish that one usually expects of wealth. He looks intelligent, and slightly melancholy. Perhaps he was sitting for a portrait at someone else’s behest (a parent, a patron, a lover), perhaps Botticelli merely found him beautiful and wished to practice for depictions of saints and classical or allegorical figures by depicting an exquisite mortal. The historical period from which we have paintings by European artists of their servants is, I think, later, as is the time when tradesmen became wealthy enough to command their own portraits. Perhaps he was a merchant.

The darkness of the painting – both the black background and the relatively dim colour of the sitter’s clothing – serve to highlight the young man’s face without draining it. In the manner of the era’s style, which prized paleness (look sometime at the almost corpselike women in some of Botticelli’s other work), he seems relatively healthy – although it’s almost certain that any blemish would have been ignored. His hair frames his face, the positioning of the sitter frames the face, everything about the painting tells you to look into his eyes. Effectively it looks like a very early version of the posters I used to tear out of Sugar magazine when I was 13.

But because I am mad-keen on making up stories about people I know nothing about (I do it on the Tube, in shops, in art galleries, in restaurants), there’s a wealth of fun to be had a with a painting like this. The sitter makes eye contact, and the mind is off, racing through possibilities: who are you, why are you sitting for this painting, how long did you live, what adventure did you find, are you in love, were you ever painted by anyone again, did you really exist or were you a figment of the painter’s imagination – a representation of earthly male loveliness and youth?

There cannot be records of all of these things, now, which say for sure. The mystery – or at least some of it – remains complete.

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