Portraiture

Great portraiture is one of art’s many surprises. Portraits, of course, have long been considered historical documents of what the sitter looked like but EPPH suspects, despite most opinion over the centuries claiming otherwise, that an accurate likeness was rarely the primary goal of a great portraitist. And while a painter-poet (our definition of an artist who paints) can depict a sitter as his or her own alter ego in many different ways (see THEMES) , one of the most common and intriguing, it seems to me, is the fusion of the artist's own facial features with the sitter's. The evidence available is fairly abundant and far exceeds the content of this site to-date. First of all, we are not alone. Other art historians have noticed the phenomenon too (see below). The most compelling example is the portrait series of British monarchs from Holbein's Henry VIII to Lucian Freud's Elizabeth II. You can judge for yourself in the gallery of English sovreigns and other famous Brits. There are similar selections on Italian, Spanish, French and American portraiture as well. The series of early American presidents is another eye-opener.

Overall there are hundreds of examples in the Gallery section from every century since the early Renaissance and we have published a 97-page book titled Every Painter Paints Himself (what else?) stuffed with comparisons and relevant quotes. You can find samples on the Book page. Nor, as mentioned above, is EPPH the first to mention something odd happening. A few art historians have been surprised in their own area of research, usually within the work of a single artist. Perhaps because they are specialists, they seem unaware of similar findings elsewhere or, in consequence, the continuity of the practice. Nevertheless, all portraits by Petrus Christus in the 14th century are said by a Christus expert to be "consistent in their physiognomy" with two famous portraits of different people looking precisely the same.1 Another specialist writes that Hans Memling's portraits have "a family resemblance"2. And two major artists in the Italian Renaissance were notorious for it even in their own day. Contemporaries said that the two painters "repeated their own physiognomies in almost any face in their paintings because they simply could not avoid painting themselves." Frank Zöllner then adds that "the visual evidence seems to confirm that in fact Filippo Lippi and Sandro Botticelli painted themselves." Giovanni Bellini's slightly later portraits are also said to be of "a biological likeness".3

For lack of space and to add variety, let's fast forward to 19th century Paris. Edouard Manet's facial features are frequently seen by scholars in the faces of his sitters and his historical characters.4 And Heather McPherson has commented on the gaze common in Paul Cézanne's self-portraits: "The ambiguity of that gaze, which appears both to look outward and turn inward, is one of the most disquieting aspects of Cézanne's self-portraits....The portraits [of others], which often portray the same long-suffering models whom he knew intimately, are in some instances co-extensions of the self-portraits."5 In Edgar Degas' work too, Luzius Keller saw a facial resemblance in many of his early portraits6 while Felix Bauman wondered whether the so-called Impressionist fused his facial features onto someone else's face.7.

Thus, despite the long-held belief in a portrait likeness, we suggest that you keep your mind open. In looking through the entries on EPPH consider whether poet-painters really did depict their own self-representations intentionally without the knowledge of their patrons and still do. If you are willing to spend time on EPPH and read about a range of artists - and not just those you prefer - you may find grounds for questioning the conventional history of art. Your independent study in museums will help too. And that might lead you, as it has for other readers, to a deeper analysis of what an artwork represents and, moreover, a lifetime of aesthetic satisfaction. But the key point is: you don't need to be an expert. You can do it too.

1. Marilyn Ainsworth, Petrus Christus: Renaissance Master of Bruges (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art), 1994, p.184

2. Lorne Campbell, “Memling and the Netherlandish Portrait Tradition” in Memling and the Art of Portraiture (New York: Phaidon) 2005, p.57

3. Rona Goffen, Giovanni Bellini (Yale University Press) 1989, p.92

4. Paul Abe Isaacs, The Immobility of the Self in the Art of Edouard Manet: A Study with special emphasis on the relationship of his imagery to that of Gustave Flaubert and Stéphane Mallarmé, PhD Diss., Brown University, 1976, p.51; Carol Armstrong, “To Paint, To Point, To Pose: Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe” in Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, ed. P.H.Tucker (Cambridge University Press) 1998, pp.101.

5. Heather McPherson, The Modern Portrait in Nineteenth-Century France (Cambridge University Press) 2001, p.119

6. “Degas’s portraits can often be recognized as his, not just by their stylistic and thematic features, but often by the nature of the facial features too." Luzius Keller, “Portraiture between Tradition and Avantgarde: Proust and Degas” in Degas Portraits (Zurich: Kunsthaus) 1994, pp.132.

7. “In our opinion it cannot be ruled out that Degas here overlaid a copy with certain features of his own appearance....Did Degas in fact pick out this face, which in no way plays a dominating role in the overall composition, from the multitude of figures depicted by Pintoricchio because it enabled him to overlay it to some extent with his own?" Felix Bauman, “Degas’ Early Self-Portraits” in op. cit., p.164
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