It’s the beginning of November and time for the monthly ArtSmart Roundtable in which several art history-loving travelers post on a theme. You can see links at the bottom to the other posts in the group. I’ve always loved portraiture, but for November’s ArtSmart Roundtable on art genre’s, I am going to focus on a special kind of portrait – the self-portrait.
Posts tagged ‘portrait’
Thanks to the US $1, George Washington has one of the most recognizable faces in America. This President’s Day, I got to thinking about that portrait and two excellent exhibits I saw a few years ago at Mount Vernon and the National Gallery about the real likeness of George Washington.
The dollar and a large number of contemporary and future Washington paintings are based on an unfinished portrait done by Gilbert Stuart in 1796. At the time of the sitting, George was 64 and retired to Mount Vernon. His teeth had been a constant source of pain since the first one was extracted when he was 22. When he started his presidency, only one real tooth remained in his head. Several sets of dentures were made for Washington over his life by incorporating human teeth and carved bone or tusk teeth into a metal cage. None these were reported to have fit well and must have caused him considerable discomfort.
On the day Washington sat for Gilbert Stuart, he was struggling with a set of false teeth. Stuart notes, “When I painted him, he had just had a set of false teeth inserted, which accounts for the constrained expression so noticeable about the mouth and lower part of the face.” Look back at Stuart’s portrait. Washington’s jaw does appears to be clenched, pushed somewhat forward and bulky. This immediately recognizable portrait is likely not the most realistic.
Eleven years before the Stuart portrait, sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon met with Washington a made a life mask – a process in which plaster is applied to a face for an accurate sculptural model. This likeness seems less tense and the jaw line less protruded.
This life mask and the bust Houdon made from it were used by Mount Vernon to create “the real George Washington”. Through an interesting forensic anthropology project, the sculptures an other artifacts were scanned, analyzed and used to construct three wax faces meant to represent George Washington at 19, 45 and 57 year of age. Life-sized figures were created by examining existing clothing and written descriptions of the Washington’s posture. (You can watch a short video about the process done by the History Channel here.) The end result is incredibly impressive. The three Washington figures were one my favorite parts of visiting Mount Vernon as they help piece together a more life-like representation an American legends.
When I started DaydreamTourist, Picasso’s portrait of Françoise Gilot was a convenient logo. I even joked in the About section that this is what I look like if he had painted me. But that got me thinking. Of all artists past and present, who would I want to create my portrait?
I should say I have always loved portraiture. The end result is a blend of both how the sitter (or their family) wanted the individual to be represented, what society valued at the time, maybe some of what the artist thinks of the subject and, if you’re lucky, a realistic likeness of someone who once existed.
Domenico Ghirlandaio “Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni” is a lesson in wealth and virtue as an elegantly put together woman sits amid her possessions. Her rigidity reflects her status which is emphasized by the inscription, O art, if thou were able to depict the conduct and soul, no lovelier painting would exist on earth.
There is something to be said for sentimentality and tenderness. For example, Norman Rockwell’s Richard Nixon seems friendly, familiar and just a tad endearing.
Many of my favorite masters of realism worked during the Northern Renaissance and produced luminous life-like figures.
Without a doubt though, I would want my portrait done by John Singer Sargent. I have heard it said that Sargent liked painting women and it shows in his work. Looking at his pieces, you start to understand the personality of his subject through quirks in their poses, faces or the portrait’s composition. I have also admired the fluidity and range of his brushwork moving from well executed facial features to impressionistic clothing and abstracted backgrounds.
I suppose I should also point out that his portraits of men were really amazing too.
Thanks to the John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery for images and inspiration.