Women: 'The Male Gaze' ; A Goya Show at the National Gallery of Art Follows Up on a Renaissance Exhibition That Looked at the Female Portrait

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Sept. 11 affected visual art in two ways: It can now seem like a frill, or it can feel like a needed respite, where we revel in or reconcile the virtuous and the horrific.

A respite of an exhibition went less noticed last fall because of 9/11. Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo's Ginevra de' Benci and Renaissance Portraits of Women at the National Gallery in Washington put us in touch in the subtlest of ways with beauty and virtue, gender and power.

The exhibition opened Sept. 30; few visitors were going to the nation's capital during the three-month run. That is a shame, since the show, featuring Leonardo Da Vinci, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Sandro Botticelli, was one of the National Gallery's finest exhibitions.

The names may sound like pasta dishes, but Botticelli's image "Birth of Venus," with its exquisite line and surreal space, appears on mugs and T-shirts, and is ingrained in popular awareness. That work was not in the Washington show, but a lovely Botticelli portrait of the young woman who inspired that Venus was - "Young Woman (Simonette Vespucci?) in Mythological Guise." The painting of the beautiful Vespucci, heartthrob of Florence's privileged sons, was a delicate delight.

The exhibition captured 15th-century Florence, when patronage and taste shifted from the church to ridiculously wealthy banking, textile, and shipping families, the most famous of which we all know: the Medicis.

The show gave a glimpse of Medici women, and of the Renaissance when - through their patrons, with their secular tastes and their interest in the real world and in creative experimentation - painters and sculptors achieved a level of skill so dazzling that they cast off medieval roles as craftsmen and commanded the status of genius artists.

The show recorded, among other complex changes in art and ideas, the advent of the female portrait in profile: still, stylized, impersonal archetypes of feminine refinement and elan, seen through the eyes of the male patriarchs who commissioned them and the male artists who executed them. These idealized profiles gradually softened into three-quarter poses, then to full-frontal portraits, immortalized in Leonardo's "Mona Lisa" and in his "Ginevra de' Benci" (still on display in Washington). …