Mental images from Holbein, Ingres and Picasso

It is well-known that Picasso admired Ingres' portrait drawings like the one above on the left. Separately I have shown how Ingres, like other great masters, changed the facial features of his sitters to fuse them with his own. Not all portraits were changed like that but many of the important ones. What has not, I believe, been seen is that Ingres also adjusted the features of his sitters in a process similar to Cubism. See how the nose in Ingres' drawing at left is seen in profile while the head itself is turned towards us. Then compare it to the way Picasso placed a nose in profile on his study of Helena Rubinstein at right. The artist still provides us, however, with an additional view of the face beyond the nose, two views in one.1

Picasso is often celebrated as a visual revolutionary who changed the way we look at art and at the world but many of his "innovations", it seems to me, like the one above had already been used by others, just less obviously so. Nor is this portrait by Ingres exceptional because Lorne Campbell revealed how Hans Holbein, another artist praised for the vitality of his portraits, sometimes put the nose of his sitters in profile too while keeping the face turned towards us.2 And Holbein, of course, was painting in the sixteenth-century.

Picasso's innovations, like Salvador Dali's, are often old methods re-used more apparently for the modern age. Competing with the rapid spread of photography, painting needed a new direction away from the mimetic illusion of material reality towards a more explicit representation of a mental image. That is, after all, what they were trying to portray. We know this, among many other reasons, by how Beethoven and Mozart described a mental image of their musical compositions. Each man said that it resembled a three-dimensional sculpture visible from all sides simultaneously. That, I believe, was the pictorial aim of Picasso's Cubist portraits and portraits by Ingres and Holbein before him.

For my post on Cubism Explained, click here.  Or for how facial deformations by Old Masters can look normal, see Flat Noses on a Frontal Face.

Footnotes to come shortly 

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