The Likeness of the King
A Prehistory of Portraiture in Late Medieval France
Anyone who has strolled through the halls of a museum knows that portraits occupy a central place in the history of art. But did portraits, as such, exist in the medieval era? Stephen Perkinson’s The Likeness of the King challenges the canonical account of the invention of modern portrait practices, offering a case against the tendency of recent scholarship to identify likenesses of historical personages as “the first modern portraits.”
Unwilling to accept the anachronistic nature of these claims, Perkinson both resists and complicates grand narratives of portraiture art that ignore historical context. Focusing on the Valois court of France, he argues that local practice prompted shifts in the late medieval understanding of how images could represent individuals and prompted artists and patrons to deploy likeness in a variety of ways. Through an examination of well-known images of the fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century kings of France, as well as largely overlooked objects such as wax votive figures and royal seals, Perkinson demonstrates that the changes evident in these images do not constitute a revolutionary break with the past, but instead were continuous with late medieval representational traditions.
“Stephen Perkinson’s book is a tour-de-force. The topic itself has large implications; not only does this discussion go back to the beginnings of the discipline of art history, but it investigates the very nature of image-making in the later Middle Ages. Starting with the mid-fourteenth-century image of Jean II, King of France, often said to be the first independent portrait, Perkinson downplays the thorny issue of physiognomic resemblance and looks at the issue of likeness more broadly in a series of wide-ranging, innovative, and highly productive inquiries. This subtle, sensitive study succeeds in examining this material on its own terms and in the context of its own times.”
“Perkinson offers a refreshing account of the theories and practices of portraiture in late medieval France, that challenges us to rethink the role of physiognomic likeness as one among competing representational strategies. He convincingly explains renewed interest in mimetic representation within a rich interdisciplinary context, encompassing optical and physiognomic sciences, literary and theological theories of knowledge, magical associations of simulacra, and the competitive conditions of artistic patronage at French aristocratic courts. He shows that celebrated artists such as the Limbourg brothers produced recognizable, veristic portraits to demonstrate their skill as well as their own personal loyalty and that of their patrons to the ruling elites.”