In his 1928 discussion of the origins of the art of painting in France, Louis Gillet proclaimed, "It is very noteworthy that French painting begins with a portrait." (1) The image that Gillet referred to as the progenitor of French painting hangs today in the Musee du Louvre, Paris (Fig. 1). (2) It depicts a man's face and shoulders in profile set against a gold ground. (3) An inscription above the head informs the viewer that the figure represents "Jehan Roy de France"; this provides us with perhaps the most apt title for the image. There have been only two French kings named John, and because the first died in 1316 just four days after his birth, it seems clear that the image was intended to represent John II. Also known as John the Good, he was born in 1319 and reigned from 1350 until his death in 1364. John is best known today for having spent much of his reign in captivity in London, following his defeat by the English at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356.
At present the panel hangs at the entrance to the recently reinstalled northern painting galleries on the second floor of the Richelieu wing of the Louvre. Visitors entering the wing from the vast admissions area beneath the Pyramid are directed to a set of escalators that convey them to the upper level of the wing. As they rise through a majestic space designed by I. M. Pei, the panel comes into view (Figs. 2, 3). Framed by twin signs announcing the beginning of the painting collection, it hangs alone inside a large protective case. In the galleries behind this display, "Peinture" continues with a select number of works from the French court of the late fourteenth century and then branches off into other regional and national "schools"--southern France, Flanders, Germany, and so on. This dramatic display situates the panel at the starting point of early modern painting in northern Europe, distinctly apart from the Louvre's medieval collection (located on the floors below in the decorative arts and sculpture galleries). Accordingly, the installation echoes (and indeed broadens) Gillet's bold claim that "French painting begins with a portrait."
The wall text beside the panel reinforces the subtle cues provided by its installation, pointing viewers toward the reigning account of the piece's art historical significance. In addition to assigning the panel a date of "before 1350," the text informs the viewer that the work constitutes "the first surviving example since Antiquity of an independent painted portrait." (4) The label thus signals a decisive taxonomic move: it assigns the panel to the category of images known as "portraits." The text furthermore suggests that an interest in "portraits" was shared by antiquity and modernity but neglected in the intervening years, that is, the Middle Ages. It thereby invests "portraits" with profound cultural significance, implying that they collectively stand as one element of the broader rebirth of classical culture taken as characteristic of the Renaissance.
Identifying the panel as a portrait also leads present-day visitors to the Louvre to assume that it offers an unmediated view of its subject's facial features--that through it they see "what John really looked like." As a corollary, viewers are encouraged to believe that "seeing John" in this way allows us to begin to know something about him as a person, granting them access to an individual identity presumed to exist independently of its representation in the panel. (5) Even sophisticated scholarly discussions of portraiture tend to take it as axiomatic that external appearances are a necessary component of human beings' sense of self. For instance, in a stimulating book-length essay on the portrait genre, Richard Brilliant listed "a recognized or recognizable appearance" as one of the "essential constituents of a person's identity." (6)
Jehan Roy de France and the History of Portraiture
Physiognomic likeness has become enmeshed within art historical approaches to periodization, as it has come to be understood as the visual symptom of a postmedieval mentality. (7) This concept has proven to be particularly tenacious in scholarship on fourteenth- and fifteenth-century art. (8) Scholars have traditionally divided late medieval images of individuals into two categories: "portraits," which use physiognomic likeness to refer to specific individuals, and "types," which use conventional, nonmimetic representational systems to refer to group, rather than individual, identities. (9) This binary categorization has persuaded us to view the introduction of physiognomic likeness as a sign marking the triumph of the self-conscious individual of the Renaissance over the anonymity and corporate identities of the Middle Ages. At the same time, the most subtle recent transhistorical and transcultural accounts of portraiture have tended to avoid specifying the moment in which physiognomic likeness was introduced into Western art, leaving the place of images like the Louvre panel within this history unchallenged. (10)
In order to describe the Louvre panel as "the first" or, at least, "the earliest surviving" modern portrait, however, it is not sufficient merely to claim that it is a physiognomic likeness. Scholars have perceived physiognomic likenesses in a variety of other types of images beginning in the early fourteenth century, when "donor figures" in devotional works began to display distinctive, apparently individualized facial features. In order to present the panel in the Louvre as decisively modern, scholars have emphasized its status as, in the words of its wall text, "an independent painted portrait" (emphasis mine). Studies of portraiture frequently claim that portraits should ideally be entirely divorced from obvious religious references, enabling the representation of an individual's identity to emerge as the primary goal of the image. (11) This insistence that an image be "independent" to be considered a proper portrait crops up repeatedly in discussions of the Louvre panel. (12)
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The traditional account of the Louvre panel is thus predicated on several assumptions: that it is a physiognomic likeness of its subject; that physiognomic likeness is necessary for the representation of individual identity; that as a physiognomic likeness devoid of overt religious references, the panel constitutes an example of portraiture in the modern sense; and that as a portrait, it marks a decisive break with medieval artistic traditions. If all of these assumptions are accepted as accurate, the Louvre panel can certainly be said to stand as a work of tremendous importance for the history of art--and, indeed, for the history of Western culture.
But there are significant problems with each of these assumptions. Most basically, it is extremely difficult to ascertain what one might call an image's "physiognomic intent" in the absence of the image's subject. (13) An image's naturalistic, individualized traits cannot be taken as proof of physiognomic intent. (14) An artist can produce a highly individualized representation without attempting to replicate the actual appearance of a particular individual; the well-known "founder figures" in the west choir of Naumburg Cathedral are cases in point. (15) Beyond these is an even more profound problem with the assumptions applied to Jehan roy de France: it is dangerous to assume that present-day conceptions of physiognomic likeness were shared by artists and audiences from different periods and cultures. The number of ways in which an image can resemble its subject are potentially infinite, and the degree of resemblance that a viewer expects to find between image and subject is also infinitely variable. As a result, the criteria by which one gauges concepts such as "likeness," "resemblance," and "realism" are always historically and culturally contingent. (16) The common-sense definition of the portrait--that it is simply an image that "looks like" its subject--is thus hopelessly imprecise. The most perceptive recent scholarship on the practice of portraiture has stressed ways in which portraiture must be understood as a complex social practice rather than as a simple form of representation calling for verisimilitude and mimesis. (17) It is therefore understandable that scholars of medieval art have at times looked skeptically on the presumed connection between physiognomic likeness and the representation of individual identity, and recent scholarship has explored ways in which images can convey vast amounts of information specific to an individual's identity without recourse to physical resemblance. (18)
A further difficulty arises when one wishes to identify the first member--the prime image--in a sequence known otherwise through its later manifestations. In order to classify an object as a part of a series of similar objects, an observer must possess an understanding of the criteria that justify the grouping together of those objects and must be aware of other previously existing objects belonging to that series. As a result, any description of an image as the earliest member of a group is necessarily anachronistic. We can construct our definition of the group of images described as "portraits" in ways that enable Jehan roy de France to stand as the first in this series (for instance, by assuming that it provides a physiognomic likeness of John the Good, by requiring that images can only be construed as portraits if they represent their subjects through physiognomic likeness, and by excluding votive images from our definition of portraiture). This definition, however, is dependent on a broad awareness of the images that were created both prior and subsequent to the Louvre panel; the artist who painted the panel itself could never have conceived of such a definition. That artist would necessarily have understood the image in different terms--terms that were effaced by the subsequent...