Strands of Expression

Piero di Cosimo’s Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci depicts the Florentine noblewoman and mistress of one of the Medicis in the characteristic early-Renaissance style. Emulating Roman aesthetics was an integral part of the intellectual and visual Renaissance world, evident in the elaborate hairstyle and associations with Cleopatra. The intricate braiding and delicate strands of pearls was an elaboration on the already individualistic and decorative styles of Roman times. Botticelli, on the other hand, applies the same dynamic quality to his hair as he does to his flesh and flowing outlines. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his depiction of the three Graces in Primavera, where the fluidity of the gestures, folds of transparent cloth, and long locks of golden hair all create a vivid harmony.

Italian Renaissance aesthetics influenced their northern neighbors, although there is a still a distinct Flemish flavor to St. Cecilia by the circle of Ambrosius Benson. The patron saint of music looks rather reserved, as the pallor of her face and black background highlight the sumptuous red hat, ordered rows of pearls and ruffles, and perfectly formed flaxen ringlets.

Velasquez’s portrait of Maria Teresa, an infanta of Spain, reflects a restrained ambiguity that he applied to his depictions of royal personages, as the court was slowly crumbling in its own decadence. The girl’s indecipherable face is surrounded by hair that is twice the size, decorated with translucent silver fans, as the creamy brushstrokes are illuminated against a dark background.

The risque locks of Courbet’s Woman with a Parrot were more provocative than the 19th century French audience was used to, as her languished pose sinks into the folds of sheets that flow into messy strands of curls.

On the other hand, George Romney’s Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Hamilton falls into the more gentile Georgian portraiture phase of English painting. He was known for his classical references in particular, and worked with a romanticized sensibility that was popular at the time, as her hair is swept up almost carelessly to fit with her pensive expression.

There seems to be an erotic quality associated with depictions of women combing their hair, bathing, etc. across cultures and time periods that involves an idealization of the female form. The simple outlines of Kitawana Utamaro’s woodblock print Bijin Combing Her Hair is reminder of how these mass-produced prints that became so popular in the west were often depictions of famous local beauties from Edo. Titian’s Young Woman Combing her Hair is suggestive in a different way, as the blouse slightly slipping off her shoulder might indicate, revealing the particularly fleshy form that Titian was known for.