Summer Program Course Description


The Role of the Portrait and the Self Portrait: A comparison between Renaissance Painting and Digital Photography

  • 8 undergraduate credits in Visual and Media Arts
  • VM 368 Topics in Art History and Digital Photography (fulfills the Aesthetic Perspective of the General Education requirements)

The goal of this 5-week summer program is to study and compare two different means of artistic expression made in two completely different time periods: The ‘pre-modern’, more artisinal style, method, technique, and the meaning and methods of interpretation of old master paintings of the Renaissance, will be compared and contrasted to the methods, meaning and modes of interpretation of modern means of image-making, in particular of digital photography.

The Art Historical Component

This summer we will examine the cultural and artistic exchange in Early Modern Europe when international trade, migration and the process of cross-cultural awareness had just begun. Renaissance painting of Florence and Venice in Italy and of Ghent and Bruges in the ‘Low Countries’ during the period 1400-1550 will serve as a case study for commercial and cultural interaction and exchange as reflected in their artworks.

The commercial revival in the late Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance caused the rise of flourishing urban centers such as Bruges and Florence, and the formation of a new mercantile and intellectual middle class, which paved the way to an ever-increasing self-awareness. Comparison of Italian and Flemish artworks of the Renaissance analyzed in their historical context, will show how and to what extent they’ve influenced one another. These two regions of Europe formed a very important cultural axis: The commercial, cultural, religious and subsequently political interaction between these cosmopolitan cities/city-states transformed their vernacular style and mode of expression. This process of cross-fertilization, which took place between other European cities as well, contributed to the rise and dissemination of the Renaissance style. The potential for an international community and a shared visual language of communication was thus created.

Particular emphasis will be placed on the emergence of individualism and self-awareness of the trading middle class of Bruges and of the ruling class of  the city-states of Florence and Venice. This increased self-esteem generated in the visual arts the rebirth of the genre of portraiture, and established the tradition of self-portraiture. This genre will be the central topic of this program.

We will examine the methods of inquiry we should employ to come to answers of questions such as: How realistic, idealized, political or simbolic were these portraits? What type of portraits or self portraits existed in the Renaissance and for which reasons? What was the purpose, intention and specific function of the portrait? What does the portrait reveal of the inner self, of the inner emotions and thoughts of the sitter? Of his or her position, profession or social status. How important was likeness?What is being revealed of the artist? What were the criteria for portraits in this time period and how does it reflect the Renaissance mentality? How was the relationship between sitter and painter established? How did cultural exchange take place in the Renaissance and how did it effect the evolution of style and meaning in this relatively new genre?

In general, we will investigate the questions we should pose to the visual object under scrutiny and whether the questions we raise were relevant to the time period of the Renaissance and in particular of Renaissance Flanders and Italy.

The Digital Photography Component

This part of the summer program contains both a theoretical and a practical-creative part. It will reflect upon and critically analyze the medium of photography in general, and of digital photography in particular, both from an ethical and an aesthetical point of view. The course investigates the use of the portrait in photography throughout its history. We will examine visual experience and representation in our modern visual culture, with particular emphasis on the representation, the fashioning and the shaping of the inner and outer self. The internet revolution that takes place circa 150 years after the invention of photography, enables people to present/represent themselves instantly before a potential audience of millions. This implies that we can perform the role of photographer, sitter, editor, publisher and spectator ourselves.

The same or comparable questions raised about painted portraiture and its function in the Renaissance can be posed to photography, to its black and white, color and digital images. These questions will be offset against and compared with the criteria valid for our modern times.

The practical side of this component includes a creative, hands-on part designed to increase students’ practical understanding of this digital technology with all its creative, expressive, communicative and manipulative possibilities. Working with the digital camera and learning the technique of editing, students will develop skills and extend their artistic and critical understanding of images, of image-making and its meaning, and of the effect of mass reproduction. Students will be exposed to different ways of seeing and of representation which depend as much on mentality, fashion, personal taste and style, as on intention, purpose and function. Through analysis, comparison and hands-on experience focused on a clearly circumscribed theme: the portrait and the self-portrait, students will gain a deeper understanding of the role and expressive meaning of this new medium in modern-day society.


  • Rob Dückers, Dulcia Meijers (Art Historians).
  • Gerlo Beernink (History of Photography/Photographer)

View Course Requirements for Digital Camera and Computer »