Portraiture - A Brief History
Portraiture - Now and then . . . - A Historical Perspective
A twenty-first century portrait, as we know portraits, is very different from that commissioned in Greece, Egypt, Rome, elsewhere and in other times - despite portrait roots all being from the same visual arts tree.
In bygone eras, there was but one "type" of portrait : that which depicted the position (societal status) of the individual painted. The name "Henry", in King Henry the VIII, was of little consequence. What mattered was the title "King", not the person. The portrait had but one goal : depict “His Majesty” at his most "Royal" - i.e. at his most powerful, rich, benevolent (or despotic) best - whichever was the politically correct quality to have at that time.
Whether the subject was Queen or Consort, King, Pope or Countess, it was the position held which was painted. Human failings or attributes of an individual depicted were of lesser consequence. What had to be shown was the "value" of the subject’s position as it pertained to the “commissioner” of the portrait and the society of that day. Over and above power, a portrait also served to "publicize" the general wealth of a client (as in, having more money than).
From the earliest centuries onward, European portraiture (that which we have embraced within our own culture) has evolved from representations of position, to representations of profession, to today’s renderings of person - i.e. : the who that we are as specific and unique individuals.
For all intents and purposes, we have evolved from perceptions of What I Am to those of What I Do to those of Who I am.
Today, we commission a portrait of ourselves, of a loved one, friend or colleague to celebrate their/our uniqueness. And with this freer perception of the“who I am”, a more open consideration of personhood has come to pass. With a less rigid “who we are” consideration, we are more open to recognizing (if necessary to the purpose of a portrait) an individual’s contribution to their community, institution, corporation or society at large. Thus the concept of official portraiture has survived all of these centuries because we now look upon a portrait subject as more than simply the consequences of being a portrait subject.
What Of The Contemporary Need For Likeness
Cameras have forever altered contemporary perceptions. Through the 20th and now the 21st century, we have come to increasingly recognize "likeness" as a primary benchmark by which we communicate and share (or not) with others. In essence, what we look like to others, or think we do, has become a crucial twenty-first century connection characteristic. A portrait painter must keep this in mind if he or she wishes to survive in the increasingly rarefied air (and prized) practice that is portrait painting.
Nonetheless, recognizability should not be the singular focus in portraiture. To be successful, a likeness must be more than its physical self. It must have depth. It must speak eloquently to a subject’s personality and to a sitter as a stand-alone individual. In contemporary terms, and regardless of painterly stylistics, the “face” must offer more than a recognizable nose. In the end, the role of a contemporary portrait is to serve as a vehicle through which the uniqueness of an individual’s living (not necessarily recognizable) presence may be recorded.
Ironically, though today we prize being recognized, in the distant future that 15 minutes of fame need won’t mean much. Centuries from now, we will, through our portraits, be enigmas. . . Hopefully faces with depth upon whom fascinated viewers will gaze and wonder : “Who was she? Who was he?
© Bernard Poulin