Portraits: Icons of America

Portraits make popular art exhibitions because we all think we can “read” a face. It’s part of being human. Everyone is his or her own expert on other people’s faces. Besides, portraits help satisfy our natural inquisitiveness about what people in the past looked like. Strangely, though, despite their apparent simplicity, life-like “physiognomically accurate” portraits are a rare art form. Although humans have made art for at least 40,000 years, it was only relatively recently in what we call “antiquity” around 200 BC, that sculptors first started to copy the facial features of their “sitters”. Painted portraits followed but neither form lasted. Within 400 years the illusionistic portrait had disappeared, not to return for another thousand years until late in the first quarter of the fifteenth century. A new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum picks up the story at that point, celebrating the re-birth of illusionistic portraiture in Renaissance Italy and plots its subsequent  development in the art centers of Rome, Florence and Venice.

There is, though, a little-known problem. Too many portraits by the same artist look alike. Thus the idea that Renaissance portraits resemble the people who sat for them is no longer taken for granted. Stefan Wepplemann argues in the catalogue that it is impossible to describe both a sitter’s appearance and character in one face so, given that character was more important, likeness was sacrificed. “(T)he assumption”, he writes, “that the sine qua non of a portrait is a lifelike resemblance represents a short-sighted view of the genre.”1 It may be short-sighted but many Renaissance patrons wanted exactly that, a good likeness for posterity, and they complained bitterly when they did not get it. Isabella d’Este, one of the greatest, wrote that Mantegna “has done his work so badly that it does not resemble us in the slightest way.” Why would artists not produce what their patrons wanted even during one of those extremely rare moments when accurate likenesses were expected? One answer, proposed by Wepplemann, is that the individual’s appearance, no matter how important, was adapted to “a codified type.” That is perhaps the only answer possible within the current paradigm though it says little about the code and ignores the sitters’ complaints; change the frame, though, and art changes too.

It is a remarkable fact that artists, at least since the early Renaissance, have fused their own features into the faces of their sitters.  The impact of this knowledge on historians, and especially art historians, should be great. Five portraits of Napoleon by four different artists each resembles the artist. King Charles I of England, who had his head executed by famous painters long before he actually lost it, sports a red beard in a portrait by Van Dyck, a dark brown one in another by Mijtens. Van Dyck, of course, had red hair and Mijtens dark brown. Even in America, the best known artists still fused their features with their sitters no matter how important. Or, rather, perhaps because they were important. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and the other luminaries of the new continent all suffered the same fate. America’s icons are “artists”. Face fusion, though, is not the only way in which “every painter paints himself” but it is one of the most self-evident. It reveals that we cannot “read” faces quite as well as we thought because, in looking into the face of another, all we see (as artists tell us) is our own self as in a glass, dimly. It is this simple truth that separates art from mere copying and explains why portraiture, as most imagine it, is a very rare genre indeed.  Why, you might ask, have these resemblances not been seen before? The answer is simple: Sight, even everyday sight, is a construction of the imagination and, if you cannot imagine something, you cannot see it. That may be difficult to imagine but it is true. Indeed artists seem to have known what science now confirms.


1. Wepplemann, “Some Thoughts on Likeness in Early Renaissance Portraits” in The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini (New York: Metropolitan Museum) 2011, p. 64

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