The portrait genre is not usually seen the most visually inventive or imaginative of genres. Indeed, the subjects themselves were often more important than the artist in question, even if some names and faces only survive to us through their painted form. The subjects of portraits were traditionally wealthy, famous and powerful, with a presupposed standing in society, ranging from aristocrats and bishops to statesmen and merchants. They were nominally chosen for their own posterity, or at least, with the absence of photography, to display their stature and physical appearance for strangers to admire. Some are mysterious, like in Leonardo da Vinci’s La Giaconda, a.k.a. Mona Lisa (c. 1503-1506), others are more symbolic, like Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434). The exception to this rule, of course, is the self portrait, and it is fascinating to see how artists portray themselves and, in the case of Rembrandt, the ageing process. Like all genres, it went through a transformation from the Romantic period onward, as ideals of a courtly life or mercantile wealth gave way indisputably to harsh realities.
Théodore Géricault – Portrait of a Kleptomaniac (1822). Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent
In his series of ten portraits of inmates at the Salpêtrière asylum in Paris, around the theme of monomania, Géricault broke new ground in portrait painting, paving the way for Gustave Courbet, Honoré Daumier and others. He was commissioned by psychiatrist Étienne-Jean Georget and certainly succeeded in portraying an objective visual account of various diseases, with unflinching realism. Each portrait has a dark, brooding background, with the light directed on to the pale, haggard faces. The most striking facets are the eyes, which convey a sense of their internal suffering. The Portrait of a Kleptomaniac is one of the most resonant of the series.
Albrecht Dürer – Self Portrait at the Age of Twenty Eight (1500). Alte Pinakothek, Munich.
Albrecht Dürer was the greatest polymath of the Northern Renaissance, a fine painter, especially of watercolours with such exquisite detail. He was also a mathematician, cartographer and print maker, who succeeded more than anyone in his time in the dissemination of art to a wider public, and whose images are the equal in importance to Luther’s words. Yet, like a number of geniuses of supposed God given talent, he also had a super ego. If he were an Italian, he might well have been venerated as a God. Never mind, he fancies himself as Christ reborn in this self portrait, with the shadows either side offering a counterpart to his luminous, long hair. He even holds out his hand as if in an act of devotion. There is much introspection in his eyes, but not much modesty.
Hans Holbein – The Ambassadors (1533). National Gallery, London.
We know who the two ambassadors might be in the portrait, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, the latter the Bishop of Lavaur. However, the greatness of the painting lies not in the subjects, as court ambassadors in the realm of Henry VIII, but the objects. One can hardly escape the illusory skull, albeit obliquely, an allusion, perhaps, to the fleeting nature of life. And yet, the other objects have nothing to do with death. Of course, there are many religious objects, such as a Lutheran psalm book, but also to discovery, knowledge and adventure. There are globes, instruments both scientific and musical, an arithmetic book and an exotic rug. If ever a painting from the Renaissance captured the progress of the age, it’s this one.
© 2017 AGP