Flat Noses on a Frontal Face

L: Ingres, Portrait of Hippolyte-François Devillers (1812) Graphite on paper. Private Collection.
R: Ingres, Portrait of Hippolyte-François Devillers (1812) Oil on canvas. Private Collection.

A year ago I used this early portrait drawing by Ingres (left) to demonstrate that Picasso's combination of faces from differing viewpoints, a hallmark of Cubism, was a technique practiced by earlier artists for a similar reason. Ingres, for instance, drew Monsieur Devillers' face frontally but put his nose in profile (left). You can read my ideas on why that might be in Mental images from Holbein, Ingres and Picasso but, in brief, images in the mind allow one to recognize an object or person from any side and thus, though resembling reality, contain views from multiple directions simultaneously. Some artists, probably with heightened awareness of their thought processes, seem to have known this. More recently, I came across a reproduction of Ingres' finished painting of Devillers (right) in which, for whatever reason, he "corrected" his "error". The comparison now makes even clearer what he had done in the drawing. To make the nose in profile seem less odd than it otherwise would, he stretched the back of the man's head to put it in profile too.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of the Merchant George Gisze, detail (1532) Oil on wood. Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

Hans Holbein did the same to George Gisze in 1532 (above). To make the man's nose in profile "fit" his near-frontal face, he stretched the coiffure behind the man, as if it was on a head in profile as well. Though I learnt about the distortion of Gisze's nose elsewhere, it was Ingres who pointed out to me Holbein's manipulation of hair. (That's why looking at a wide variety of great artists is so important.) Only after I had compared Ingres' drawing to his finished painting did I see why the flatness of Gisze's nose looks less odd than it would otherwise be.

Such manipulations are far more common in Old Master art than has ever been described in the literature. If they were better known, not only would Cubism be seen in a more accurate light but so would the art theory of the past. The centuries-long claim that likeness was the primary goal of a successful portrait has blinded more people than the sun.

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