Portraits and the Past

Yesterday in conversation with a well-regarded classical architect of my acquaintance, the gentleman pointed out how amazing a time it must have been for the patron of this blog, Count Castiglione, to have been alive, given that he had his portrait painted by both Raphael and Titian.  For those unfamiliar with their work – and you have a lot of catching up to do if you are not – these men were two of the artistic giants of not only the Italian Renaissance, but in all of art history.  More observant readers will spot that I use a detail from Raphael’s portrait of Castiglione, specifically the Count’s folded hands, as the masthead for this site.  Yet for all of his greatness, and indeed the greatness of those who painted him, Castiglione was a mortal man, and the importance of his portraits lies not only in their beauty or technical accomplishment, but in the fact that they humanize him for us.

The art of portraiture is still being practiced at many levels in the present age, several centuries after artists like Raphael and Titian.  I have a large portrait of yours truly seated in an interior, painted by an up-and-coming Hong Kong artist friend, that stylistically falls somewhere between Kandinsky and de Kooning, for example. And at some point when I am a bit more capable of doing so, I may want to commission my friend British artist Rupert Alexander to use his considerable talents on trying to capture a visage that is often not amenable to being captured.  Someday, one hopes, they will be considered as good memorials for those who knew me, and once no one is left who remembers me, they may be appreciated as art objects – or not, given their subject matter falls far short of perfection.

The development of the formal portrait photograph has also been an important one. A snapshot portrait is fine, as far as it goes, in that it can capture a specific moment, often very informally. However there is a world of difference between you and the lads taking pictures of each other with a red-eye-reduction filter down the pub on a Tuesday night, and the work of portraitists who either try to make you look as good as possible, like George Hurrell, or who try to capture you warts and all, like Richard Avedon.  A formal portrait photograph can make a lasting impression in how we perceive an individual, in much the same way as a formal portrait painting or sculpture does.

With all of that said, the importance of the portrait through the centuries is not only as an artistic medium in which the portraitst can demonstrate his skill, or as a document for future generations, but as a symbol of continuity.  In the ancient past this was quite obvious, such as the anthropomorphic Egyptian mummy cases, or the busts of the Roman emperors.  The former was part of the theological construct for keeping the universe going and holding chaos at bay, while the latter was a way of symbolically showing that those states subject to Roman control were under a single authority.

Today, portraits of the Founding Fathers and subsequent leaders of this country are featured on things such as money, documents, etc., and yet I suspect that most people never stop to ask why.  There is no Constitutional requirement that an image of George Washington must be shown on any currency re-design that we go through, and we have been through many such re-designs over the past two centuries.  So why should we put pictures of dead people whom none of us have known on such things? After all, even monarchies like Britain put a picture of the ruling monarch, i.e. a live head of state, on their coinage and postage stamps.

An image of someone who has gone before us, whether one as large as a Sargent oil or as small as one of FDR on a dime,  provides a powerful sense of continuity with the past from human being to human being, in a way that other types of images very often cannot.  It has always seemed to me that one of the fundamental errors in sects or philosophies which eschew the representation of human beings, such as in portraiture, is a failure to appreciate that in order to live in the present, we must be reminded of from whence we have come, and how we are not so very different from those who came before us.  That connection with the past is more than simply recognizing a human genetic chain of descent, such as in the case of a monarchic dynasty: it is an acknowledgement of the uniqueness of the human species, and its ability to think about the past, present, and future.

The practical application of this for most of us is not to be found in artistic portraiture, even though I would encourage those of you with the means to do so to seriously consider commissioning a portrait drawing, painting, or the like, if ever you are able.  What you can do, however, is ask your parents, grandparents, and so on, to provide you with copies of photographs, or even photographic reproductions of the portrait of a family member, and put them on display or in an album. You may never have met your grandmother’s great-uncle Richard, but if she has a splendid picture of him taken in a photography studio when he went off to fight in World War I, what a marvelous thing that would be to have sitting on your piano or bookshelf.  Or perhaps your second cousin owns an oil portrait of your great-great-aunt as a young girl, which you may never have the chance to own yourself – perhaps you can ask to have a high-resolution photograph taken of it, and then take the image file to a photography specialist to have it printed and framed, as you would a reproduction of any work of art you might like at an art museum.

The greater the gulf of time that separates us, the more we need images of previous generations to ground us, reminding us not only of the accomplishments of our predecessors, but also of their flaws and failings.  Otherwise, we come away with the false impression that the dead were demigods and beings utterly strange to us, whose talents or day-to-day experiences are completely removed from our own.  True, most of us will probably never accomplish, in the eyes of the world, particularly great things.  Yet the men and women who did accomplish great things were frail, earthly things as we are, and by seeing portraits of them, we can remember that they got up in the morning, got dressed, had lunch, and so on, just as we do.  Adding the images of these people to those of your immediate family and friends is a way to always remind yourself of the fact that you are connected to these people, to history, and indeed to those who will come after you.

George Hurrell working on portrait photos with Rosalind Russell
Beverly Hills, 1942


4 thoughts on “Portraits and the Past

  1. Your blog today talks about the « powerful sense of continuity with the past from human being to human being » provided by portraits. You express very well a thought I had last June, when – lucky me – I was able to go and revisit van Eyck’s Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini, in London. Paintings and artistic photographs should, when possible, be seen directly ; while a reproduction, in this case, may convey the dignified intimacy of the scene, no reproduction can give the impression of another human being speaking to one across the chasm of centuries. It happened to me, strongly, in front of this painting ; it cannot be fully explained as a result of the artist’s work and talent (which it is), of this viewer’s particular sensibility. It is more : Frères humains, qui après nous vivez…

    Thanks, and keep up the good work (even in the eyes of a non-conservative),


    • I completely agree with you about the “Arnolfini Marriage”. When I saw it for the first time at the National Gallery it completely blew me away, even though I was familiar with it for years from art history books and the like. There is nothing like seeing a work of art in person to pick up on the subtleties of its execution.

      Thank you for your visit, I hope you will feel free to drop in any time, and you can always search my – gasp – 3 years of archived blog posts for previous pieces on art subjects, if you are in need of a read.


  2. Pingback: Portraits and the Past (via Blog of the Courtier) | portraitsplus

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