While working on a project on Friday, I found myself wanting to call Titian’s portrait of 11-year-old Ranuccio Farnese the greatest child portrait in all of art. Because, you know, it is.
Well, sort of. I mean, what’s to say that Titian’s Ranuccio Farnese (1542) is better than, say, Bronzino’s 1545 portrait of Giovanni d’Medici? “Greatest” is always a subjective game, a parlor entertainment… but it’s summer in the art world, so why not?
Why would I pick Ranuccio? The sensitive realism of the Titian is so disarming that the rest of the painting sneaks up on you. Ranuccio’s boyish head bobs above the adult-sized shirt he’s wearing. His even more over-sized cloak seems to be held in place by divine intervention. Our tween is wearing a codpiece, which seems downright aspirational. And note that Titian paints Ranuccio not from above, as a painter might paint a child 40 years his junior, but head-on, as an adult would paint an adult.
Finally, Ranuccio appears to be holding back the left side of his cloak so that the viewer may see his sword, one of the great details in Titian’s oeuvre. The kid doesn’t look old enough to take a bath by himself, so what’s he going to do with a sword? Furthermore, wearing a sword in public was illegal for adults — or boys — in Venice when the painting was made. Titian probably included it for one reason: To indicate status, power and privilege. Two years later Ranuccio was made a cardinal. He was 13.
So what would motivate a 52-year-old painter, the most wanted painter in all Europe, a man at the height of his power and influence, to grant a young boy such presence?
Farnese family wealth and influence. Ranuccio’s father was a mercenary soldier and administrator of a particularly wealthy (and bloody and amoral) sort — and also the Duke of Parma. That combination of money and power was enough for Titian to pursue the Farnese as clients, but there was more: The Duke of Parma was one Pierluigi Farnese, the illegitimate son of Alessandro Farnese, aka Pope Paul III. Naturally Titian wanted in with the Farnese clan. The opportunity to paint Ranuccio was his first chance at a Farnese.
It was a minor coup for Titian, but it came with a caveat: The Farneses didn’t commission Titian to paint Ranuccio, a Venetian nobleman and church figure, Bishop of Brescia Andrea Corner did. Corner’s idea was to hire Titian to paint the young lad, who happened to be visiting Venice, and to give the portrait to Ranuccio’s mother as a gift. Corner was every bit as active in the suck-up-to-power game as Titian was: Part of what he wanted featured in the painting is the black cloak Ranuccio was awarded to signify his having been given a priorship in the local branch of the Knights of Malta, a cloak complete with a silver Maltese cross of the Knights of St. John. Corner didn’t want just to celebrate Ranuccio, but also to celebrate the Knights of St. John. [Image: Titian, Pope Paul III, c.1543. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.]
Titian’s Ranuccio was a big hit. About a year later Titian was invited to paint the pope’s portrait and shortly thereafter Titian’s second most-famous bit of boudoir porn, a Danae. Farnese patronage worked out very well for Titian — and for the Farnese.
Last Friday I asked my Twitter followers and Facebook friends what they thought was the greatest portrait of a child in all art, in part because I was curious to see how many would respond with Ranuccio. (Answer: None.)
I received scores of responses. I thought I’d share a few, particularly those that are specifically portraits of children and not just pictures that happen to have a child in them. What did we miss? (Nota bene: We deemed Las Meninas to be something other than a portrait.)
- Hans Holbein the Younger, Edward VI as a Child, after 1538.
- Diane Arbus, Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, NYC, 1962.
- Goya, Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga, c.1790s.
- Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878.
- John Singer Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882.
- Rembrandt, Portrait of a Boy, 1655-60.
- Thomas Lawrence, Sarah Barrett Moulton: Pinkie, 1774.
- Bronzino, Bia de Medici, 1542.
- John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1885-86.
- John Russell, Mrs. Robert Shurlock and Her Daughter Ann, 1801.
- Henri Matisse, Marguerite, 1907.
- Gustav Klimt, Mada Primavesi, 1912.
- Theodore Gericault, Louise Vernet, 1818.
- Thomas Gainsborough, Jonathan Buttal: The Blue Boy, c.1770.
- Ammi Phillips, Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog, 1830-35.
- Vincent Van Gogh, portraits of Marcelle Roulin, 1888.
- Diego Velazquez, Portrait of the Infant Philipp Prospero, 1659.
- The work of Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis, who impacted the lives of countless children.
- William Hogarth, The Graham Children, 1742.
- Sally Mann, Candy Cigarette, 1989.
- Diego Velazquez, Prince Baltasar Carlos as a Hunter, 1635-36.
(Farnese family background on Titian’s Ranuccio Farnese came from several sources, but mostly from Peter Humfrey’s “Titian.”)