The most absorbing study of mankind will probably always be man; a circumstance that must, in a large measure, account for the popularity of portrait painting with the general public. Anyone who has observed the procession of visitors to the National Portrait Gallery in London, or visitors to any mixed exhibition such as Masterpieces of Art shown here last summer, will notice that it is the portraits that occupy the chief attention of the average person. This popularity arises partly from the fact that the amateur feels more at home in the presence of portraits than of still lifes, for example; feels better qualified to judge them because they represent a genus with which he is comfortably familiar. But it stems primarily from his interest in human beings, and from the diverting problem of deciding who was the winner artist or subject, in the struggle that every portrait necessarily represents.The results of this battle between artists and their several subjects can be judged, during the month of January, in a small exhibition of portraits of women and children assembled from the permanent collection. It will be observed that sometimes the artist triumphed and sometimes the sitter. Whichever the result, the task of making the portrait was not a simple one, for in addition to the struggle between two personalities, portrait painting requires adaptability to a certain fixed set of circumstances. Not only is an artist limited with regard to his composition, but since he cannot depict the progression of expression he must chose a specific moment of expression to record. All these facts explain much of the dissatisfaction frequently expressed over the unlikeness of a portrait.When portraiture first began to emerge as a particular field of painting toward the end of the sixteenth century, it was considered unworthy because it represented a denial of the interest that had hitherto occupied artists in every branch of art: the glorification of the Christian religion. And despite the fact that it was a logical outgrowth of humanistic instincts released by the Renaissance, it remained a slightly questionable profession until well into the eighteenth century. Van Manders spoke of it as a road an artist would take only as a last resort, and Blake registered his contempt for it in the words: “Of what consequence is it to the Arts what a Portrait Painter does?”Portraiture is primarily of consequence, of course, when it reaches the artistic level of other branches of painting. One has only to recall the portraits of Rembrandt, Titian, Velasquez, and other great masters to realize that it does reach this level. In men of lesser stature it also frequently achieves an artistic integrity. The secondary consequence of portraits, notable when the subject dominates the artist, lies in the fact that they constitute a historical record of persons, customs, and fashions. The portraits of Clouet and his contemporaries, for instance, performed in paint for the Valois court what the writings of La Bruyère and La Rochefoucauld performed for the court of Louis XIV.It is from an observation of these two elements in a portrait, the artistic and the historical, that one is guided in judging the winner of the battle between the painter and the subject of a portrait. A good painter will refuse to be wheedled by his sitter into the position of presenting, above everything else, a portrait complementary to that sitter. An indifferent one is either not given a free rein, or hasn't the temerity to take one. It is when this latter situation exists that portrait painters and portrait painting lose esteem in the world of art. And since it exists oftener with women sitters than men—women being notoriously vainer and more capricious than men, a consideration of the portraits in this group is particularly interesting.Among the portraits in which the artist emerged the victor despite the historical flavor of his subject, is that of Charlotte of France by Clouet. The painting was done from a drawing, as was the custom in those days. This second-hand rendering, however, has detracted in no way from Clouet's authoritative characterization. The costume has been minutely and exactly rendered, but it does not obtrude on the chief interest of the picture: the face. Clouet transfixed neatly the old-young, slightly wary expression of young Charlotte was wearing at the moment he set down his impression, and in doing so gave a strong hint of the surroundings in which Francis' daughter spent her short life. The finely detailed brushwork of the painting plays its own important role in the portrait.Miervelt is another artist who came off the winner in his portrait of a Dutch woman. One of the earliest and best exponents of portraiture in the Low Countries, he appears to have brooked no interference on the part of his sitter. She wears an elaborate costume, but that was the fashion of the day and not primarily the result of her desire to cut a fine figure. Miervelt gave it its full value in this portrait, perhaps as a tour de force
to show that even a sumptuous costume such as this could not overshadow his ability as a portrait painter. The detail of jewels, lace, and satin are beautifully executed; the colors rich and subdue; but the face, framed in its fan of dark hair, remains the chief point of interest.Hanneman's portrait of the Countess of Carlisle, on the other hand, represents the triumph of costume and sitter over the artist. One's interest here is centered on the billowing folds of green silk, the pearls, and the elaborate hair dress; not upon the face. A rather repellent face, by the way, and one wonders how the countess liked it when she saw it. Possibly the fact that the figure and hands have elegance and distinction, as do most portraits by Van Dyck, soothed any wounded feelings. Almost without exception, feminine portraits of the latter seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, reflected the influence of Van Dyck; a vogue that resulted in many decorative but few convincing portraits.Not until the time of Hogarth did English painting assume the native aspect, and it was with him more apparent in genre than in portrait painting. Hogarth produced several portraits that leave no doubt as to his status in the artist-subject battle, however. Among them is the Institute's recently-acquired portrait of a woman, in which Hogarth has succeeded in giving a superb characterization. In the expression of the woman's face, which reflects exactly her reaction to the circumstance of having her portrait painted, Hogarth has triumphed over his tendency to paint portraits as still life.Working at about the same period as Hogarth was the little-known artist, Stephen Slaughter, whose portrait of Sir Edward Walpole's children suggests that he might, in some circumstance, have acquitted himself as a painter of portraits. In this example he was perhaps bound to a conventional rendering by the mother of his subjects, who doubtless wanted her children to appear as angelic little creatures. Nevertheless, the artist intimates, in the expressions of the two youngest children, their reactions to this polite mummery, and some hint of what they would like to do about it. The placing of the figures is formal but rather engaging with its accessories and arrangement of deep blue and pastel tones. The faces of the children are typical of a long line of English faces that were to flower under the hands of English portrait painters: oval and wide-eyed, with little or no modelling of the planes.Allan Ramsay's portrait of a young woman illustrates the sort of portrait demanded by the majority of English people during the eighteenth century; a portrait which, once he was committed to painting it, would automatically triumph over the artist. Probably the young woman in this instance was a member of one of those estimable country families who wanted her features for posterity. It was the thing in those days to have one's portrait painted. Characterization was of no importance if one were made to look distinguished and charming. One posed in one's prettiest frock and was painted by an artist who was supposed to waste no energy on trying to capture an exact likeness. Ramsay did this sort of thing well; so well, in fact, that he was for some time a court painter. By and large his portraits have no interest as portraits, but they constitute an attractive and authentic decorative element in rooms of their own period.This style of English portrait painting was perpetuated in the southern colonies in eighteenth-century America by Jeramiah Theus, a Swiss artist who painted the portrait of Mrs. Gardner Green customarily on view of the Charleston rooms. Here again there is no question as to the victor in the artist-subject battle. A pretty portrait was desired, and Theus produced it after a formula he appears to have learned abroad. Because of its English flavor Theus' work is occasionally attributed to Copley.To appear charming was also the aim of the grandmother in the superb Courbet portrait acquired by the Institute last year. But Courbet could take this in his stride. He painted the portrait as he wanted it, and the fact that the grandmother is such a delightful figure is the result not of her desire to appear so, but of Courbet's realism and genius' as a painter. The picture is all his: one of the most compelling now owned by the Institute, and prima facie
evidence that portraits can be great works of art.Referenced Works of Art
- Princess Charlotte of France, Daughter of Francis I by Jean Clouet, French, XVI Century.
- Portrait of a Woman by Michel Miervelt.
- The Countess of Carlisle by Adrian Hannemann.
- Children of Sir Edward Walpole by Stephen Slaughter.
- Mrs. Gardner Green by Jeremiah Theus.
- Portrait of a Young Woman by Allan Ramsey.
- The Grandmother by Gustave Courbet.