Portrait of a Gentleman, 1730s
Kimberley Chrisman-Campbell in Carolyn Miner, ed., The Elegant Man. From Van Dyck to Boldini, exh. cat. Palazzo Kiton, Milan, 2018, pp. 46–47.
Milan, Palazzo Kiton, The Elegant Man, from Van Dyck to Boldini, 17–22 April 2018
This magnificent portrait by Solimena captures the sumptuousness of men's formal dress in the Baroque era. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, lavish silks and velvets, lace, embroideries, and jewels were not considered signs of masculinity or femininity, but expressions of wealth and taste which transcended gender. Solimena’s sitter is posed in three-quarter profile to show off the maximum amount of luxurious textiles and trimmings. He wears a velvet court suit encrusted with gold embroidery and lined in white silk; the deep, golden cuffs of his coat reach almost to the elbow. The red, gold, and blue brocade waistcoat is trimmed with gold fringe, a decoration reserved for the most formal court costume; a slightly different gold brocade faces the turned-back cuffs of the coat. The lustrous silk velvet and precious metallic thread, button, brocade, and fringe were intended to gleam in candlelight; the heavy ornamentation contrasts with the delicate lace of his cravat and cuffs. A similar suit survives in the Museo Stibbert in Florence, undoubtedly preserved for its fine embroidery and because the extremely formal style would not have been worn on many occasions.
This display of conspicuous consumption extended to men’s wigs. When they were first introduced in the mid seventeenth century, wigs may have looked natural, but by the eighteenth century, they had transformed into obviously and unapologetically artificial confections. Wigs were no longer cosmetic devices, designed to disguise baldness or thinning hair. Instead, they became important status symbols and fashion statements, and their styles changed frequently. Like wigs, hair powder had both practical and symbolic functions. It served as a perfume while also giving the head a fresh and uniform appearance. Ironically, by imitating white or grey hair, it masked one’s true age, one reason why it remained in fashion for so long, prized by young and old men alike.
Holding a document and shown standing beside a table set with an inkpot and quill and a bell to summon servants, this gentleman of rank is clearly focused on matters of importance, possibly of state.
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