The portrait of the human figure has long been one of the oldest motifs in the history of painting. Yet it was not until the late classical / early modern era that artists realized that the head was the most distinctly characteristic part of the body.

Nowadays, in the age of technical reproduction, it is simply assumed that a portrait bears a resemblance to a real person. Its authenticity and realism are precisely the characteristics that make up the portrait´s ability to continually fascinate us. However, we are correct in doubting the truth of the image, for after all, we are aware of the distance between the subject itself and its image, which is created both by the process of placing the subject in a setting and the techniques of digital manipulation. In observing the history of the painted portrait as a genre, a similarly critical view is called for, since the notion that an image must be true-to-life was never a matter of course at all points in time. On the contrary, the way in which a person was portrayed in a painting was usually closely connected to each period´s understanding of humanity as well as to the social conditions of each era. Very often, the actual goals of the portrait were to idealize and elevate, to present a visual depiction of virtues and merits.

Essentially, the portrait developed from sepulchral sculpture, and similarly, it took on the function of keeping the subject alive even after death. In addition, the portrait had representative tasks and functions, both good and evil. Up to the period of the Enlightenment, it was common to execute criminals in effigy when they were not available in person. The great era of portraiture spanned the period between the late Middle Ages to the seventeenth century. During early Christianity, on the other hand, there are hardly any images of individuals, owing to the age´s rigorous rejection of portraiture. At this time, the few portraits of human beings, such as The Veil of Veronica, depict man made in the image of God.

The history of the portrait began with artists´ attempts to explore the topic of resemblance in their representations of people. This not only included external appearance, but also, since the late fifteenth century, the approach to the nature of the model. Therefore, theories of portrait painting (not the practice!) gradually began over the centuries to devalue the dictum that held that the image should be in accordance with nature, disparaging it as restrictive, barely creative art. While during the late Middle Ages, images of people were still mostly dominated by formulaic representations, a development in painting began after 1300 in which identifiable physiognomy mixed with the general canon and role-playing, which involved sacred, mythological, and historical costuming and excessive elevation of the subject. Rulers were the first to be depicted in recognizable portraits, yet their presence still had to be legitimated by the presence of a saint or holy figure, as Giotto´s portrait of a man believed to be Jacopo Gaetano Stefaneschi on the Stefaneschi Altar (1320) shows. The profile of the ruler is the figure of a humble patron.

It was much later, as the dawning Renaissance brought its new view of human beings as autonomous individuals, that the portrait conquered the private space and the bourgeois class. One of the acknowledged painters on this path was Robert Campin, known as the Master of Flémalle, whose painting of Robert des Masmines (circa 1425) is a portrait of unmistakable individuality. It is unusual in that the three-quarter profile of the subject is turned to face the viewer. The plump, stubbly face of this man is also a vivid example of the fact that, into the fifteenth century, the aesthetic categories of beauty and ugliness were not at all in existence. It was only toward the end of the Quattrocento, when Italian artists became involved with their studies of proportion, that a normalized idea of beauty and the physical ideal began to develop in opposition to the imperfection of nature. From then on, beauty was considered intelligent and morally upright, while ugliness was stupid and malicious.

At about the same time, the psychological aspect appeared in the picture. At first, this would seem to contradict idealization, but in this case, the approach to psychology cannot be thought of in the modern sense. For the nature of a person—the state of the soul—was not analytically highlighted in a portrait, but rather, it was presented as a mysterious puzzle, difficult to interpret. The most famous of this is surely Leonardo da Vinci´s Mona Lisa (1503–06), whose restrained smile, which hides more than it reveals, has been interpreted in innumerable ways.

The notion that a portrait can never be an exact recording of a moment, but is always an aesthetic construct, has to do with the portrait subject´s wish to share something about himself with the world. Merits, virtues, values, education, status, and position in society were thus added to the portrait in the form of symbols—attributes, spaces, landscapes, clothing, and pose. For instance, the lapdog in the Portrait of a Lady in a Red Dress (1532–33), by Jacopo Pontormo, stands for the woman´s faithfulness, the rosary for her piety, and the elegant red dress is in accordance with her high status. Women were almost exclusively defined through their virtues.

During this time, the autonomous self-portrait began to occupy a prominent place in the history of the portrait. For one, it served as a private place to experiment; for another, it was the expression of a new type of self-awareness. As the status of the painter during the Renaissance was elevated to that of the artist and creator, the value of the artist as a subject of portraiture increased: he at first appeared half-concealed among the crowd and later as an individual. Among the most spectacular works of this kind is Albrecht Dürer´s self-portrait, dating from the year 1500. The allusion to the image of Christ cannot be overlooked and is considered a rhetorical metaphor for the notion that the great masters of this age were on a level with God. On the other hand, the resemblance to Christ is also connected with a demand for humility and modesty.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the art of portraiture reached its peak. The portrait became the masterpiece. Among their creators were artists such as Venice´s Titian, El Greco, a Greek; Velázquez from Spain, and Dutchmen such as Frans Hals, Rubens, and Rembrandt. With the latter, the portrait finally arrived in the bourgeois, private sphere. Because of Calvinism and the wave of iconoclasm in the Netherlands in 1566, the church practically ceased to commission works. Group portraits of guilds became popular at this time, as an expression of middle-class confidence. Rembrandt´s Nightwatch (1642) is one of the most significant examples of this. The narrative aspect of this scene, however, moves it closer to the genre of historical painting.

Although art theorists continued disparaging it, both artists and patrons remained fascinated over the centuries with portraiture as a representation of reality. From the nineteenth century onward, however, some things changed. Whereas Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wrote in his Aesthetics of «portraits that were so real, they bordered on the repulsive,« and demanded that painters emphasize the spiritual and intellectual while excluding all externals, photography brought with it faster and easier techniques to achieve an almost exact reproduction of reality.

In turn, painters at the turn of the twentieth century shook the world of conventional images through their liberation of color and form. Painting triumphed over reality. Milestones of this period were Picasso´s Gertrude Stein (1905–06), where the facial features remain concealed as if under a mask, thus inverting the purpose of portraiture; or the same artist´s Demoiselles d´Avignon (1907), a predecessor of cubism whose theme was the analytical dissection of the object. Matisse, in the meantime, propagated the dominance of pure color. Regarding his 1905 portrait of his wife, Amélie, he supposedly remarked, «I am not painting a woman, I am painting an image.« Artists working in expressive painting, on the other hand, wanted to create portraits of their subjects´ souls, turning them toward the outside. The realists of the Neue Sachlichkeit, such as Otto Dix and George Grosz, apparently recurred to the old intactness of the portrait, yet they were social critics under the guise of naturalism, looking for the repulsive, the ugly. Once again, the portrait, whose ability to portray the human had often been questioned, returned during the rapidly changing artistic movements of the twentieth century. With the improvements in photography, new demands were made of portrait painting, which was forced to distinguish itself from the technological form of reproduction. That they are fully capable of shaking up technology is demonstrated by works such as Andy Warhol´s serial silk screens, or the hyperrealistic images by Chuck Close or Gerhard Richter.

02.06.2005 Dorothee Fauth

Veröffentlicht am: 02.06.2005