Showing Social Status

20 May

As idealistic as I can be sometimes, even I can’t deny that throughout most of history art has been dominated by the ruling classes.  After all, they were the ones who had the money to commission works of art and the most pressing desire to display their status to the world.  It’s only understandable.  But despite how little it’s sometimes discussed, matters of patronage and social one-upmanship can provide a fascinating insight into art and society as a whole throughout history.

Masaccio, Holy Trinitity, Santa Maria Novello, Florence, Italy, ca. 1428

Take, for example, your average Renaissance altarpiece.  Or, for a rather obvious case, look at Masaccio’s Holy Trinity fresco from church of Santa Maria Novello in Florence.  Ignoring the iconography and the artist’s use of perspective, look instead at the two kneeling figures on either side of the scene.  Those would be the donors, Lorenzo Lenzi and his wife.  Donating to the church by sponsoring building, artworks, and clerical objects had been a popular way of demonstrating one’s piety and hoping to ensure a more favorable afterlife since organized religion began, but the idea of having one’s own likeness depicted within the work of art was relatively new.  It was a way for patrons to broadcast their wealth, piety, education, and generous nature in a place where many would see it – the church. Playing “Spot the Donors” can actually be kind of fun.  Some are a bit harder, being represented only by a coat of arms or other family or trade guild symbol, and oftentimes, especially in earlier paintings, donors are depicted as almost comically small, owing to the custom of using a hierarchy of scale to demonstrate the importance of figures.

Of course perhaps the best statements of one’s social status can be found in portraits throughout history.  If you could afford to have your portrait painted, it was clear you were a wealthy individual.  If it was done by a relatively popular artist, even better.  If, like King Louis XIV of France, you have your life-size portrait painted in extremely expensive fur-lined robes featuring the icon of French monarchy then, well, pity the poor person who tries to outdo you.

But we can’t talk about social status in art without bringing up one of the most important artistic markings of class that one could have in the late twentieth century – the portrait by Andy Warhol.  For a time politicians, actors, sports figures, musicians, really anyone who could afford it, had their portrait done by Warhol.  He started out painting portraits as a way of showing how fleeting and impersonal fame was, but later in his career a portrait by Andy Warhol was a mark of fame itself.  Figures as diverse as Liza Minnelli, Brigitte Bardot, and even the Shah or Iran all paid to have their likeness done by the artist.  His portraits became so ubiquitous as to be often parodied, and if you look at your computer’s photo editing software I’m guessing there’s a setting to give a photo a “Pop Art” effect – essentially your own portrait by Warhol.

Warhol portrait of hockey player Wayne Gretzky

This may sound horribly vapid and make you feel more distant from art if it is, as I’m claiming, a history of large egos throwing their money around.  The thing is, these were often extremely fascinating personalities, and the marks that the well-to-do left on the art world hint at some interesting and often lurid stories.  Walk around the Vatican, for example, and you’ll see how many supposedly pious men of God spend unimaginable amounts of money to add their mark to the palaces, and you can be sure they weren’t exactly anonymous about it (individual Papal coats of arms can be found everywhere).  Or look at one of the most famous portraits in the collection of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.  There, in all her glory, sits Madame de Pompadour, perhaps the most famous royal mistresses of all time.

So you see, much as we’ve come to understand how the personalities of the artists influence art, the patrons had a large and lasting effect, as well.  Since they were the ones paying for the works they often had major sway over what was created, and their desire to have great works in their honor in public places and the latest and most impressive works in their private quarters spurred artistic creation for centuries – still does.  It goes back to stopping and asking “Why was this work of art created?”  Quite often it can be traced back to some wealthy patron who wanted to show off their status.


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