Pieter Bruegel the Elder

2019 sees the 450th anniversary of the death of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c 1525/30 – 1569). To mark the occasion the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna is dedicating the world’s first ever major monograph exhibition to the artist widely regarded as the 16th century’s greatest Netherlandish painter.

Netherlandish Proverbs Oil on oak panel, 117 x 163 cm; Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin.

After an initial period of brilliance, during which time it rose to achieve perfection, Flemish art gradually fell into decline. Although thorough studies of its origins have revealed works, in particular those of the miniaturists, that are deserving of notice and which predate the artistic careers of the two Van Eycks, Hubert and Jan, the genius of the brothers remains stunningly spectacular, surpassing that of their predecessors to such a degree that it would be impossible to find an equally sudden, decisive and glorious evolution in the history of art.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Painter and the Collector, ca. 1565.
Pen and brown ink, 25 x 21.6 cm.
Graphische Sammlung, Albertina, Vienna.
Petrus Paulus Rubens, Jan Brueghel the Elder and his family, 1612-1613.
Oil on wood, 124.5 x 94.6 cm.
Courtauld Institute of Art, Princes Gate Collection, London.

Even so, the lesser artists who followed the Van Eycks, whether they were either directly trained by them or simply influenced by their work, also possessed talent of admirable quality, but their sense and understanding of nature was less penetrating and profound and their execution less scrupulous. In not applying the same closeness of attention, which till then had been a rule of Flemish painting, these artists lost their opportunity for originality, relaxing their focus on nature and placing the primary importance of their work in its details.

Jan Brueghel the Elder and Hans Rottenhammer,
Rest upon the Flight into Egypt with the Temple of Tivoli, 1595.
Oil on copper, 26 x 35.5 cm. Private collection.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Flight into Egypt, 1563.
Oil on wood, 37.2 x 55.5 cm.
Courtauld Institute of Art, Count Antoine Seilern Collection, London.

It became increasingly common for these painters to travel to Italy, and consequently their native impressions became mixed with those evoked by the lands through which they passed. Upon leaving the Flemish plains, the monotony of which is scarcely interrupted, the emigrant artists could not help but be struck by the imposing nature of the mountainous regions along their route.

Joachim Patinir, Saint Jerome in a Landscape, ca. 1530.
Oil on wood, 74 x 91 cm.
Museo del Prado, Madrid.

The Alps, the Tirols, and the Apennines offered the artists the rugged landscapes once sought by the Flemish Primitives, to whom simplicity had been of no interest. In their depiction of panoramas that stretched as far as the eye could see, these nomads remained faithful to their excessive preoccupation with the picturesque.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Rabbit Hunt, 1560 (?). Etching, 22.3 x 29.1 cm.
The Royal Library of Albert I, Brussels.

They were of the belief that no amount of detail could be too much, and they tirelessly added bizarre rock formations and countless rivers to the harsh peaks and mountainous landscapes they painted. In addition, they laid out forests, towns, villages and castles that stretched into infinity. When, during their travels, they spent time in towns, at every step the Flemish painters encountered ancient ruins, monuments of various styles, statues, masterpieces by artists of the Classical age, and works of art no less admired by their less worthy successors; and everywhere they went they came across traditions and new ways of thinking vastly different from those they had known until then. How could they resist the seductions that solicited them from every direction? Their Italian colleagues, who were already organized in associations and guilds, welcomed the Flemish artists, affiliated them with their groups and initiated them into the wonders of the ars nova. On their return home, the travellers themselves often became apostles, extolling the principles of Italian painting and art in general, and attempting, though usually with little success, to imitate the Italian style…

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Portrait Paintings and Studio Drawings

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The first quality of great portraiture is the power to reveal the inner character, or story, of the sitter. It is said that every man habitually wears a mask in the presence of his peers, and it is only in moments of unconsciousness that he lets it down.

Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594), Self-Portrait, Italian, c. 1588.
Oil on canvas, 63 x 52 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The great portrait painter must be able to capture the true essence of the individual, an incredibly complex task that is often only revealed in fleeting moments. Such an artist, as the poet Tennyson describes, “pouring on a face, divinely through all hindrance finds the man behind it, and so paints him so that his face, the shape and colour of a mind and life, lives for his children, ever at his best.”

Alexander Roslin (1718-1793), The Lady with the Veil: Marie Suzanne Roslin (wife of the artist), Rococo, Swedish, 1768.
Oil on canvas, 65 x 54 cm. Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

The goal was not only to portray the subject’s physical characteristics but the entire essence of the individual, Aristotle stated that “the goal of art is not to present the outward appearance of things, but their inner significance.” Interpretative portrait painting was often modelled after Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa. The mysterious nature of the Mona Lisa’s facial expression gives depth to her character- the spectator is instantly intrigued and desires to know what she may be hiding. Therefore to attain this level of portraiture, the artist must become cognizant and sympathetic to the spirit of the subject.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Mona Lisa (La Gioconda), Italian, c. 1503-1506.
Oil on poplar panel, 77 x 53 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

In addition from a compositional standpoint the Mona Lisa symbolizes perfection, its precise proportions and use of atmospheric perspective also are responsible for its acclaim in the art world. Many portrait painters since, however far from attaining his ideal, have idealised da Vinci and utilised his work as inspiration. James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s power was remarkable in his own circle, while Franz Hals and Diego Velasquez were more universally recognised. Often the personality of the sitter is revealed by a direct gaze that seems to encompass something fascinating about the subject. Whether delightful or solemn, the eyes of the sitter seem to draw the spectator in with a sense of “intimacy” that is difficult to break down and define. This quality is especially evident in the jovial nature of Hals’ portraits, the friendly smiles apparent within Joshua Reynolds’ paintings, the wistful stare captured in Rembrandt’s portraits, and the melancholy appeal within the paintings of Domenico Morone.

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Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Italian, Lady with an Ermine (Portrait of
Cecilia Gallerani), 1483-1490. Oil on panel, 54 x 39 cm.
Czartoryski Museum, Kraków.

At other times the sitter’s glance is averted, and he is quite unaware of observation. The artist has illustrated the sitter in the intimacy of his own self-communion; a trait that is often found in Titian’s subjects. Therefore the artist’s ability to depict the inner nature of the sitter became an incredibly subjective art. Initially when portraiture was only reserved for a specific social class, the aristocracy, the church and the upper middle class or bourgeoisie, it was necessary for the portrait to be a flattering representation of the subject. Eventually artists could freely express themselves in their own introspective manner when painting a portrait.

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Shelley’s Art Musings – Delacroix Sexist?

 

Eugene Delacroix – Liberty Leading the People (1830) Musée du Louvre

It’s an iconic and powerfully strong image, isn’t it. Lady Liberty leading the charge of freedom, in what is known as Delacroix’s most famous painting, but the symbolism and composition of the piece have opened debates around sexism and imagery.
Delacroix was notorious for his dramatic paintings, but audiences found his topics and depictions rather hard to stomach, as the scenes are overly violent, too grand, oversized and overpowering in the response that they almost demand.
Delacroix was a leading name in French Romanticism, born in 1798 he was educated at Lycée Louis-le-Grand, and at the Lycée Pierre Corneille in Rouen, where he immersed himself in the classics and won awards for drawing. In 1815 he started his training with Pierre-Narcisse Guérin in the neoclassical style of Jacques-Louis David. When his fellow artist Théodore Géricault painted “The Raft of the Medusa” in 1818, this inspired Delacroix’s first major painting – “The Barque of Dante”.

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Théodore Géricault – The Raft of Medusa (1819) Musée du Louvre

From this point, Delacroix continued to create works which divided the audiences, and it isn’t by chance that “The Raft of Medusa” was the painting to initially inspire him, as later, when creating “Liberty leading the People” he echoed the triangular structure of Géricault’s piece to add depth and balance to his greatest painting.
Liberty broke a trend in Delacroix’s style, with a woman leading the people to hope and freedom over a pile of dead bodies. It was no secret that Delacroix saw women as an aesthetic to life and many of his paintings have women in them as draped and accepting of their fate, so it is unusual to see a woman so dominantly prominent in his work. This was a far cry from the status of women in the 1830s, and there are some interesting factors within the painting which stand her apart from the women of any class during the French revolution. Is this just another painting which demonstrates Delacroix’s feelings on women, or is the symbolism much deeper than his apparent sexism?
Obviously, the woman leading the people is no ordinary women, she is, in fact, Libertas and is the embodiment of Liberty. She is shown baring her breasts and holding high the tricolour flag, while in her other hand a rifle fixed with a bayonet. She strides over the dead bodies of men as a small boy, armed with pistols, hurries along beside her, as the revolutionary men come to join her march.
You may think that this painting was a heavily political piece, a depiction of the revolution from the view of those who were opposed to the government, but this is a painting of a moment in time in the revolution where anything was possible, created by a man that was trying to make sense of what was going on around him; its a moment of anarchic freedom, it is the most enduring image of what revolution feels like from within: ecstatic, violent, libidinal and murderous.
This painting is in the style of romanticism, which doesn’t concentrate on the realism of a situation, more externalises the feeling of the artist on to the canvas.
Liberty shows her breasts, not in a sexual display, but in a display of dominance and power. This painting pre-dates Impressionists, who recorded what they saw, rather than depicting symbols in a romantic way. Would it have been possible to paint a French mortal woman in this stance? At the time probably not. Only a symbolic woman could have such a role in a piece of historical propaganda rather than a real woman. She is a robust woman, indicating the strength of her convictions. She is shown in profile, almost obvious to the maddening crowd which surrounds her. She barely notices the path of dead bodies which she strides over. She is ready to fight at close range and defend the honour of her convictions.
The young boy is the symbol of how early this moment in time is within the revolution. He stands for the childlike naivety which the masses created barricades to bring down Charles X. It’s always a disturbing image, an armed child, who doesn’t have the full moral or social sense to truly comprehend what is happening to act on judgement; yet it also echoes the hope which is shown with Liberty at the front.
There are dreamlike qualities to the painting. The revolutionary who looks up at Liberty from the ground has a blue shirt and a red headscarf he has a bit of white shirt poking out under his blue top – that is, he is decked in red, white and blue, echoing the tricolour that flies over the barricades. This man is clothed in a decayed, dying version of Liberty’s flag: he is her sick shadow, an indication and premonition of the outcome of revolution. It doesn’t matter who wins in the end, people still suffer and die.
Is Delacroix sexist in his subject matter? Well, of course, he is! In 1830, it would almost be impossible not to be sexist or patriarchal as the dominant society, even in revolutionary France, was sexist at this time, as was the rest of the Western World. However, is the painting sexual and misogynistic? No, I don’t think it is. Its subject matter is not about sex or sexuality but about the power of the revolution. Oh, so often we hear of the women being the temptress who leads men astray, so why wouldn’t the Goddess Libertas be leading men into a dangerous and fraught situation under the guise of the seduction of freedom.
Delacroix has painted the hysterical freedom and joy of revolution. His painting acting as a reminder of revolution’s most charismatic visual icon, and yet it is not naive. Death is part of the glamour, and there is sickness at the very centre of progress. Romanticism is not an optimistic art. If Delacroix’s painting understands the seduction of revolution better than any other, it also acknowledges the violence that is inseparable from that belief in total change and the rule of the crowd.

Edward Burne-Jones

One of the last Pre-Raphaelites, Edward Burne-Jones brought imaginary worlds to life in awe-inspiring paintings, stained glass windows and tapestries

When Burne-Jones’ mural sized canvas of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid  was exhibited in the shadow of the newly constructed Eiffel Tower at the Paris Exposition universelle in 1889, it caused a sensation scarcely less extraordinary than the tower itself. Burne-Jones was awarded not only a gold medal at the exhibition but also the cross of the Légion d’honneur.

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, 1880-1884. Oil on canvas, 290 x 136 cm. Tate Britain, London.

He became one of those rare “Anglo-Saxons” who, from Constable in the early nineteenth century to Jerry Lewis in the late twentieth century, have been taken into the hearts of the French intelligentsia. For a few years while the Burne-Jones craze lasted, fashionable French women dressed and comported themselves “à la Burne-Jones”, cultivating pale complexions, bruised eyes and an air of unhealthy exhaustion.

The Annunciation (“ The Flower of God”), 1863. Watercolour and gouache, 61 x 53.3 cm.
Collection. Lord Lloyd-Webber.

The two great French Symbolist painters Gustave Moreau and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes immediately recognised Burne-Jones as an artistic fellow traveller. In 1892, the cheer leader of the “Decadence” “Sâr” Joséphin Péladan, announced that Burne-Jones would be exhibiting at his newly launched Symbolist Salon de la Rose-Croix alongside Puvis de Chavannes and other leading French Symbolist and English Pre-Raphaelites. Burne-Jones wrote to his fellow artist George Frederick Watts “I don’t know about the Salon of the Rose-Cross — a funny high-fallutin’ sort of pamphlet has reached me — a letter asking me to exhibit there, but I feel suspicious of it.”

Sidonia von Bork, 1860. Watercolour and gouache,
33 x 17 cm. Tate Britain, London.

Like Puvis de Chavannes (who went so far as to write to Le Figaro denying any connection with the new Salon), Burne-Jones turned down the invitation. It is very unlikely that Burne-Jones would have accepted, or perhaps even have understood, the label of “Symbolist”. Yet, to our eyes, he seems to have been one of the most representative figures of the Symbolist movement and of that pervasive mood termed “fin de siècle”.

Going to the Battle, 1858. Grey pen and ink drawing on vellum paper, 22.5 x 19.5 cm.
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Symbolism was a late-nineteenth-century reaction to the positivist philosophy that had dominated the mid-century. It found expression in the gross materiality of the paintings of Courbet and Manet and the realist novels of Emile Zola and in Impressionism with its emphasis on sensory perception. Above all, it was a reaction against the belief in progress and modernity represented by the Eiffel Tower itself and against the triumph of industry and commerce celebrated in the vast “Hall of Machines” in the same exhibition, which had filled Puvis de Chavannes with horror and had given him nightmares.

Clara von Bork, 1860. Watercolour and gouache, 34 x 18 cm.
Tate Britain, London.

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Au revoir, Monsieur Delacroix

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La fin de la vie de Delacroix se fit à l’écart de ses contemporains, rue de Furstenberg, en compagnie de sa vieille servante, Jenny Le Guillou. Affaibli par la maladie, il continua de peindre, conservant sa prédilection pour les scènes orientales et les thèmes inspirés par les poètes. La découverte de la mer, à Dieppe, fut pour lui comme le dernier renouvellement de son travail, traitant des flots déchaînés dans des oeuvres au sujet biblique tel Le Christ sur le lac de Génésareth.

Le Christ sur le lac de Génésareth, vers 1863. Huile sur toile, 50 x 61 cm. Gallerie Peter Nathan, Zürich.

En 1859, fatigué par les immanquables critiques que suscitait encore le moindre de ses envois au Salon, il décida de ne plus exposer. Et, dans ce paradoxe au sein duquel il sembla toujours se complaire, lui qui s’était montré si novateur au début de sa carrière, resta à l’écart des grandes oppositions qui animaient désormais le monde de la peinture vivante. Il mourut le 13 août 1863 et son atelier fut, selon les dispositions qu’il avait prises dans son testament, dispersé aux enchères.

Ovide en exil chez les Scytes, 1859. Huile sur toile,
87,6 x 130,2 cm. The National Gallery, Londres.

Les lieux furent par la suite occupés par différents locataires jusqu’au jour où la destruction du site fut envisagé. Mais, notamment grâce à la mobilisation de Paul Signac et Maurice Denis qui participèrent, en 1929, à la constitution de la Société des amis d’Eugène Delacroix, l’ultime atelier du peintre fut préservé. En 1954, la société fit don des lieux à l’État français, en vue de la création du musée qui, en 1971, devint le musée national Eugène Delacroix.

Chasse au lion, 1855. Huile sur toile, 57 x 74 cm.
Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

Peintre parlant à l’oeil plutôt qu’à la raison, Delacroix fut ainsi l’un des plus grands coloristes français du XIXe siècle, si ce n’est le plus grand. La couleur fut pour lui un moyen d’expression déterminant qui, toujours, eut la préséance sur le dessin, la forme et les détails. Bien que ce fût malgré lui, il s’inscrit incontestablement au coeur du mouvement romantique, au sein de cette Europe qui se nourrissait alors de Goethe, de Scott, de Byron ou encore de Hugo. La nature romantique du peintre, peut-être de manière inconsciente, s’enflamma aux rimes de leurs lignes ; il était possédé par leurs.

Odalisque, 1857. Huile sur bois, 35,5 x 30,5 cm. Collection privée.

Ainsi, tirat- il nombre des sujets de ses toiles dans les oeuvres de ses poètes préférés, non pour les transposer dans des illustrations littérales, mais pour faire s’exprimer, à travers son propre langage pictural, les émotions les plus vives du coeur humain. Et, c’est généralement dans les rapports entre plusieurs personnages, en d’autres termes dans le drame, que Delacroix trouvait l’expression naturelle et saisissante de ses idées. Dès lors, son OEuvre apparaît, comme un immense poème polymorphe, à la fois lyrique et dramatique, sur les passions violentes et meurtrières qui, toujours, fascinent, dominent et déchirent l’humanité.

Huile sur toile, 64,5 x 81 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

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Bikini Story

The beginning of a new millennium – let alone a new century – simply demands a quick but thorough look back at the past hundred years. Different outline sketches of the history of the twentieth century might all too quickly resort to headline-style formulae about “a century of war and terrorism”, “a century of barbarism”, and omit any mention of a great number of events and triumphs that should be rightfully regarded as entirely positive.

Photo of Coney Island at the beginning of the 20th century. The holiday resort regarded by some as “Sodom by the Sea” seems to be living up to its reputation as these five ladies lift their skirts in the style of a dubious rendition of the French can-can. They are wearing swimming costumes that cover the entire body with the exception of the arms. It is interesting to note how many layers of material are involved. Over a woollen body-stocking a short pair of trunks is held in place by straps at the thighs; on top of which is the bathing costume proper. The Rubenesque proportions of the carefree dancing girls are typical of their time.

These might seem to have been of secondary significance in relation to more sombre events, but they certainly cannot be excluded if our historical round-up of a hundred years is to retain its proper balance, if it is to be truly historical, and not be reduced to checklists of damage and destruction, of wars and disasters alike and their cost of lives and property, of the numbers of casualties, and of the people, places, and things that are now as if they had never been. Made possible by the decline of prudish Christianity, the return of the human body to a status in which it could once more be looked at and admired is surely one of these positive events.

 

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Golden orange bikini of Pain de sucre, 1990. Model: Sonia, Fam agency, Paris. Photo: Delavigne.

The process of liberalisation began at the end of World War II and eventually extended across the entire Western world. It was paralleled by moralising court judgments and injunctions against it, many of them relying on ancient laws well overdue for repeal – and was decisively assisted by the invention of the bikini. Measurement of the effect of this new culture of the body has, itself, become a basis of scientific theory. It is often a level of “dress formality” that represents a means of establishing precisely where on the equivalent scale of personal liberties a given society has reached. In another sense, dress formality (or the lack of it) is no more than a very old – and very elementary – method of communication between people.

 

 

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Another photo from the beginning of the 20th century shows the American holiday resort of Coney Island and a group of happy bathers. The women are wearing swimsuits that resemble nightshirts. Most often deep blue with white stripes (a colour scheme that was widely used, especially in beach costumes for boys) in spirals, vertical lines or horizontal hoops. Such costumes extended down to the calves of the legs.

Besides indicating class, rank, and social status, clothes since the 1960s have also had ideological implications. It is interesting in this regard that even something that bears no resemblance at all to an official uniform may, nonetheless, become the equivalent of a uniform for one group or another. At the head of such revolutionary sartorial tendencies – with one or two scandals to celebrate its birth, and one or two outbursts of moral outrage to celebrate its coming of age – proudly stands the bikini. Another aspect of the upheavals since 1945 may be grasped all the better in the light of the words “consumer demand and mass communications” used to betoken the totality of social activities. A history lesson on the bikini would at once point out the importance of the combination of saleable goods and the benefits of advertising following World War II.

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Jenna Pietersen on the beach with a Canail bikini of Pain de sucre. Photo: Éric Deniset, 2009.

It should perhaps be recalled that it was during a time of economic depression that the bikini was launched and the cinema re-launched. At the beginning of the 1950s, film directors made a lot of the “almost nude” look of the itty-bitty bathing costume in the hope of attracting even more customers to their auditoriums. The popularity of the films they produced was, in turn, utilized by the designers of bikinis as a showroom to display their latest creations. It was possible to foresee the day of the publicity film-clip which had everything: goods that people wanted, described with attractive enthusiasm, all done artistically.

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Jacqueline Maraney (20), secretary, winner of the “Most Beautiful Swimmer” competition on June 26, 1948.

All the same, the spread of “the smallest swimsuit in the world” did not follow solely from the newly liberalized social perception of the human body but relied on the application of that perception to the realm of women’s fashions. Anorexia and other eating disorders, the fanatical pursuit of sport and of bodybuilding, are only the latest manifestations of the changed vision of the human body that began in the 1950s – first as a new freedom, and then, for some, as a new norm that required discipline or constraint.

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1000 Portraits of Genius

Exhibition: The Art of Portraiture in the Louvre Collections

Date: May 30th 2018 – Sep 03rd 2018

Venue: The National Art Center, Tokyo

Since Antiquity, portraits have been commissioned to represent important people, figures, heroes, and gods. Over time, this artistic genre has evolved from the embellished Greek marble sculptures to contemporary paintings, photography and abstract works. While the specific aesthetic style of the portrait often varies over time, the main purpose of portraiture has remained consistent-to depict the personality, characteristics or essence of a person or important figure by using the face as the dominant feature of the composition.

The Seated Scribe, Serapeum, Saqqara, Egyptian, Old Kingdom, 4th Dynasty, c. 2620-2500 B.C.E. Painted limestone statue, inlaid eyes: rock crystal, magnesite (magnesium carbonate), copper-arsenic alloy, nipples made of wood, height: 53.7 x 44 x 35 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The first known portraits can be traced back to prehistoric times (c. 30,000 B.C.E.) when men reproduced the outlines of their shadows as an attempt to preserve their memory in times of absence. Over time these depictions evolved into monochrome representations with simple lines and shapes, which now can be compared to the contemporary “portrayals” and abstract forms created by modern artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

Christ Pantocrator, 1148. Mosaic. Cefalu Cathedral, Sicily. Byzantine.

This collective work attempts to create a comprehensive outline of the history of portraiture illustrated in both painting and sculpture. In the hierarchy of art theory, the portrait was initially viewed as inferior compared to history painting but superior to still life and other genre paintings. Throughout the history of art, theorists have occasionally been skeptical or critical regarding the issue of resemblance to the sitter, implying that the artist often portrays his or idealization of the subject. Despite this, the immense number of surviving portraits suggests that portraiture was nonetheless a popular request by those responsible for commissioning artworks across the artistic timeline.

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Italian, Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo the Elder, c. 1475. Tempera on wood and gilded stucco, 57.5 x 44 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Portraiture is often overshadowed by other styles and genres of art. Art that qualifies as narrative painting or sculpture is almost always more appreciated amongst the masses than the black and white portrait of a political figure or famous artist. Perhaps this occurs because people assume that a portrait does not directly appeal to the imagination or tell a particular story. The differences between a portrait and a narrative piece of art can be compared to that of a novel and a biography. The first focuses predominantly on plot and action, while the latter is more concerned with the development and analysis of a specific individual.

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), Dutch, Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1665. Oil on canvas, 44.5 x 39 cm. Mauritshuis, The Hague. Classicism.

Therefore a biography could be considered flat in comparison to a novel that is full of dramatic scenes. However, depending on the nature of the writing itself a biography can be just as fascinating and compelling as a novel. Evidently, in the same respect, a portrait that has been painted in such an exemplary and skillful manner can be just as insightful as an illustration of a particular myth or story.

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), French, Napoleon Crossing the Alps at the St. Bernard Pass, c. 1800. Oil on canvas, 260 x 221 cm. Musée National du Château Malmaison, Rueil-Malmaison. Neoclassicism.

Knowing some background information regarding the identity of the sitter often impacts the accessibility of the portrait, because the spectator instantly recognises the subject and can, therefore, compare their understanding of the person with the particular representation.

Paul Delvaux (1897-1994), Belgian, Madame Pollet, 1945. Oil on canvas, 100 x 80 cm. Fondation Paul Delvaux, Saint-Idesbald. Surrealism.

But even the portrait of an “unknown” subject can be so charged with meaning and depth that the visitor cannot help but be intrigued. A great portrait artist can illustrate a story so effectively that sometimes a precise title is not even necessary. Therefore, Titian‘s (Tiziano Vecelli) Man with the Glove, Rembrandt’s (Harmenszoon van Rijn) Portrait of a Man located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Diego Velasquez’s Lady with the Fan may appeal to us even more powerfully than many of the identified portraits by these same masters.

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