Reflect on Portraiture: ‘What is portraiture today?’, but what has it been?

This is the first of a series of blogs exploring the history of portraiture in the run up to the opening of Reflection, our portraiture open show. A total history of portraiture would be a pretty gargantuan task for one lowly History of Art undergrad, instead this an exploration into some key themes and ideas related to portraiture.

  Titian,  Portrait of Isabella d’Este , c.1534-1536, oil on canvas, 102 x 64 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Titian, Portrait of Isabella d’Este, c.1534-1536, oil on canvas, 102 x 64 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum.

In the call for submissions we have asked artists to explore ‘What is portraiture today?’; as a historically minded individual, I am asking (and, hopefully partially answering) ‘What has portraiture been? and why?’. I hope these blogs will pique your interest, and if you’re an artist, give you some inspiration for your submissions to Reflection.

  Artemisia Gentileschi,  Self- Portrait as the Allegory of Painting , 1638-1639, oil on canvas, 98.6 x 75.2, Royal Collection (Currently on show at the Royal Academy in the Charles I: King and Collector exhibition).

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self- Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638-1639, oil on canvas, 98.6 x 75.2, Royal Collection (Currently on show at the Royal Academy in the Charles I: King and Collector exhibition).

Let me introduce you to the themes I’ll be exploring in the weeks to come. Next week we’ll be going back to what most people think of when they think portrait: good old oil on canvas paintings. I’ll be looking at portraits of Isabella d’Este and using them to introduce some key ideas about portraiture which are still being explored by artists today. From here we’ll jump into the 21st century and consider how selfies are a natural evolution in the history of portraiture. Then we’ll go back to the Renaissance, hop around a few centuries, looking at artists self-portraits and the difficulties of self-representation. From there, there’s a bit of a thematic change, looking at idealisation in portraiture and ideas about internal virtue and external beauty. From idealisation we move to brutal realism, considering the changing relationship between artist and sitter. Then, we lose faces and figuration altogether and go to the weird and wonderful world of conceptual portraiture. Finally, in the week before Reflection opens, I’ll be looking at how some of the ideas discussed are represented in the artworks from the exhibition.

  Cindy Sherman Instagram, 2017, “Cindy Sherman Takes Selfies (as Only She Could) on Instagram).”  The New York Times  (August 6, 2017).  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/06/arts/design/cindy-sherman-instagram.html

Cindy Sherman Instagram, 2017, “Cindy Sherman Takes Selfies (as Only She Could) on Instagram).” The New York Times (August 6, 2017). https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/06/arts/design/cindy-sherman-instagram.html

There’ll be themes that keep popping up: likeness (or lack of), personality, characterisation, beauty, status, self-fashioning, narcissism, identity, subject and artist. There are questions I’ll keep asking: What is the aim of a portrait? Is a portrait just capturing someone’s likeness or does it go a little deeper? Why do we still make portraits? Does external appearance have anything to do with who we are? And many, many more.

I hope you’ll enjoy this blog series and it’ll move you to reflect on portraiture.

  Robert Rauschenberg,  This Is a Portrait of Iris Clert If I Say So , 1961, Telegram with envelope, 44.5 x 34.6, Collection Ahrenberg, Vevey, Switzerland. Photo: Courtesy Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.  https://www.rauschenbergfoundation.org/art/artwork/portrait-iris-clert-if-i-say-so

Robert Rauschenberg, This Is a Portrait of Iris Clert If I Say So, 1961, Telegram with envelope, 44.5 x 34.6, Collection Ahrenberg, Vevey, Switzerland. Photo: Courtesy Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. https://www.rauschenbergfoundation.org/art/artwork/portrait-iris-clert-if-i-say-so

 

Bibliography

Woodall, Joanna. Portraiture: Facing the subject. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1997.

Campbell, Lorne. “Portraiture.” Grove Art Online. Last updated May 26, 2010.