The Sitting

Once seen as symbols of wealth and power, portraits are now more likely to be explorations of authenticity and identity. 


You could call my maternal grandparents bourgeois. Alf, or Poppa as we knew him, was a Jewish immigrant from Poland who worked his way up in the cloth business, from Whitechapel into a modern flat in the West End. He was a founding member of a Masonic lodge in Café Royal, liked holidays in Nice and Florida and was very good at gin rummy. Tilly, my sweet, feminine grandmother, had four children, wore mink coats and large oversized jewellery. To mark her thirtieth wedding anniversary, friends gave her a portrait, painted by a popular art star of the day. Lost over the years, the painting was a soft-focus three-quarter-length number, ideal to hang above any mantelpiece, which exuded 1930s glamour. She was depicted in the paint equivalent of a Vaseline-smeared lens.

Was commissioning the portrait an act of vanity? Did she see herself as a great beauty who deserved to be captured for history? Why do portraits lead to the assumption that the subject is vain? Perhaps because by their existence they imply the person was a someone. They were commissioned to show that individual’s power, status, beauty or knowledge. As Laura Cumming noted in her book on self-portraiture, A Face to the World: “One does not stand before images of monarchs, philosophers, aristocrats or popes trying to guess why they were immortalised in paint. Even if the entire lives of anonymous sitters are lost, one thing is known about them: that somebody wanted their portrait; somebody paid an artist, or perhaps the artist himself wanted to record their image.“

The portrait originally emerged as a medium for propaganda. Ancient Roman emperors were depicted in marble as idealised, cult objects. The form revived in the middle ages when recognising someone’s actual face became economically important in business. People were less likely to defraud you if you knew their face. A lexicon developed around gestures and facial attributes. Queen Elizabeth I used portraiture to become a cult figure. She was depicted as ever opulent, ever young in engravings and paintings that emphasised her stability, wealth and dynastic beauty – a model adopted in the 20th century by media-savvy dictators such as Stalin or Kim Jong-Il.

Europe went portrait crazy in the 17th century. They hung in lockets, town halls and noble castles. They depicted family members, public individuals, admired historical figures, civic institutions, guilds. Paintings were a sign of wealth, taste and identity.

Left: Girl in a Large Hat, Caesar Boëtius van Everdingen, c.1645; Right Jacob Ferdinand Voet, Portrait of Maria Mancini, Duchess of Bouillon, 1660 - 1680. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum

Portraits became a big deal in the late Renaissance, when ideas around humanism became a serious philosophical concern. The metaphysical inner self of a subject was now a valid focus. The idea of the individual, rather than just part of a society or collective, grew in importance. Portraits changed from a warts-and-all simulation of life into something more nuanced. Mysterious, often riddle-like props would sit in the background, or the subject might be engaged in activity that symbolised their virtue or knowledge. The mannerist painter Agnolo Bronzino was the king of Late Renaissance portraits. His figures were elegant, intellectual and very beautiful. From an admiral painted as a half-naked sea god with a ripped body to academic young boys holding their school books, Bronzino portraits always demonstrated the stylised idealisation of the artist’s skill as much as the social standing or stature of the sitter.

If you want to blame any single individual for the ego-driven idealisation of the portrait, look no further than Anthony van Dyck (no relative of Dick). The grandfather of society portraiture, his emphasis on power and dignity was catnip to British aristocrats after he was made court painter to Charles I, in 1632. His subjects were haughty, beautiful, relaxed and dressed in the most fashionable clothes. Painters Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and George Romney all drew on his model. Van Dyck’s idealisation of his subjects was such that, according to the German art historian Jakob Rosenberg, “when Sophia of Hanover met Henrietta Maria of England whom she had known only from Van Dyck’s portraits, she was amazed at the queen’s crooked and ill-proportioned figure and her ugly, protruding teeth”.

Europe went portrait crazy in the 17th century. It was also in this period that a new social middle class began to emerge, confident, rich and wanting its share of the attributes accorded to royalty and the old aristocracy. Bankers, scholars, merchants and their families looked to demonstrate their social standing. Group portraits emerged as status symbols for corporate bodies and guilds; the portrait was a symbol of the institution. In 17th-century Holland portraits were everywhere. Writer Ann Jensen Adams notes that somewhere around 5-10 million paintings were produced that century. They hung in lockets, town halls and noble castles. They depicted family members, public individuals, admired historical figures, civic institutions, guilds. The portrait itself was intertwined with the economic flourishing of the time. There were art fairs and dealers selling portraits. Paintings were a sign of wealth, taste and identity.

The everydayness of these artists’ take on the portrait managed to make it something about intimacy, free from the restrictions of class. Subjects were not idealised. They were modern, smart, deconstructed.

People were questioning the individual’s role in the world, drawing on the ideas of John Locke and René Descartes. The Protestant rage at Catholic religious imagery of the century before was transformed. In this new world everyone could be portrayed. The image was no longer connected to worship.

It is no coincidence that this face-obsessed era also coincided with the rise of vanitas paintings. These exceptionally detailed still lives often included gothic elements such as skulls, fruit so ripe it was on the edge of rotting or perfect flowers that could not live more than a day. The works emphasised the decay and superficiality of this world. They drew on the biblical verse from Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”. Vanitas translates as emptiness. Here vanity was something worthless or sought in vain. A modern take on it would be ‘you can’t take it with you’.

A rebellion against the portrait began to emerge. The French writer Charles Sorel wrote the Description of the Island of Portraiture and the City of Portraits in 1659, a dystopic text describing a future inhabited by hairdressers, tailors and professional portrait painters. The idea here is that human vanity has spread to all levels of society, to the point where self-image becomes more important than higher values. It is scarily like the present. By the 18th century, portraits were no longer seen as symbols of truthful depiction of their subjects. As the French author, philosopher and art fan Denis Diderot wrote in the 18th century: “I warn you that it is not I. I had in one day a hundred different appearances, as determined by whatever was affecting me. I was serene, sad, pensive, tender, violent, passionate, enraptured. But I was never as you see me there.”

The portrait began to be disparaged as something very middle class. Painter Henry Fuseli complained: “Portrait-painting, which formerly was the exclusive property of princes, or a tribute to beauty, prowess, genius, talent and distinguished character, is now become a kind of family calendar, engrossed by the mutual charities, of parents, children, brothers, nephews, cousins and relatives of all colours.” Yet portraits gave expression to the 19th-century middle class. For doctors, lawyers, the military, professors, scientists and their affluent wives, the portrait was a way to join their group class identity. Was this vanity? Is it vain for a new social class to want to feel secure in its grasp on power?

Everything changed with modernism. Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot, Vincent van Gogh, Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas and later Chaim Soutine, Otto Dix, Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Paula Modersohn-Becker and Pablo Picasso all created portraits. They managed to avoid charges of vanity because of their stylistic radicalism. The subjects of their portraits were rarely the wealthy. Instead there was a focus on friendship, the poor and the ignored. Portraits became a genre to showcase an artist’s ideas of what art could be. Paul Cezanne, for example, painted tough, unflattering pictures of his friends and wife in everyday poses, and later labourers and local people at his estate in Aix en Provence. His focus was on the subtlety of facial expressions, the graphic planes made with paint. Soutine focused on young, male hotel workers in Paris. He repeatedly painted the young chefs at restaurants such as Maxim’s and bellboys at the grand hotels catering to a new wealth. His distorted figures were depicted with their hands on their hips, awkwardly young and, at times, tense in their uniforms.

The everydayness of these artists’ take on the portrait managed to make it something about intimacy, free from the restrictions of class. Subjects were not idealised. They were modern, smart, deconstructed. The more abstraction became a focus in art, the less portraits were seen as symbols of vanity and wealth. That is not to say there were not commissioned portraits by collectors. Their vanity was less about idealised faces, but how their support of young avant-garde artists gave them a touch of cool. If the old-fashioned portrait was about social status, the modernist portrait was about showing your intellectual experimentation and willingness to be depicted in an ultra-modern way.

There’s a new wave of artists reinventing the portrait and questioning if vanity is something to be embarrassed about at all.

Classic idealised portraiture still was being made in the 20th century. Watch any old Hollywood movie and you’ll see an egotistic portrait above the fire. It was an indication of glamour. Andy Warhol’s silkscreen portraits took that to another level. His repetitive, one-style-fits-all approach was a perfect accompaniment to the ironic nature of late celebrity. Anyone who wanted to be Marilyn Monroe could have their own portrait in the same style (for the right price). Warhol painted Michael Jackson, Debbie Harry, Diana Ross, Muhammad Ali, Dolly Parton, John Lennon, Princess Grace of Monaco, Mickey Mouse and many unknowns. Some were commissions, some were his creative choices. All, however, were given the same stylised, graphic, vibrantly colourful approach. The mass production of his art was central. Warhol’s portraits became a byword for vanity. A cliché of a cliché of someone in search of fame.

In many ways portraiture is unsure of its standing today. It would be easy for the haters to call it crass, or leave it to moulder in those portrait prizes outside of the ‘serious’ art world. Yet there’s a new wave of artists reinventing the portrait and questioning if vanity is something to be embarrassed about at all. African diaspora artists such as Kehinde Wiley, Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye all create art that rethinks portraiture. Wiley, in particular, shows his hyperreal individuals in much the same poses and positions as the heroic portraiture of historical predecessors such as van Dyck. His figures confront the viewer, dressed in rich patterned backgrounds, posing like royalty but dressed in streetwear. They exude a sense of vanity, but also question ideas around power, equality and representation.

Juliana Huxtable, Untitled, 2017, Courtesy the artist

In an era of selfies and self-obsession, vanity is seen by some as a social crisis. We are all Narcissus, obsessed with our reflection on the screen. Yet this sense of vanity is also being unpicked by contemporary artists. The curator Aria Dean recently put a show online for entitled New Black Portraitures, which included Pastiche Lumumba’s performances on Instagram accounts, Juliana Huxtable’s photographs of Black Lives Matter tattoos and virtual reality and video works by Rindon Johnson and Sondra Perry that deconstruct digital bodies and their relationship to ideas of the internal and external. It feels like this new wave is exploring how to show ideas of character, establish identity and be authentic. Portraits are not just about vanity and the depiction of wealth, importance and beauty. They are also about our souls.


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