What makes a portrait great? To me it’s the creation of a moment of life on canvas, when we see what appears to be a living and breathing person. To our modern eyes, that doesn’t necessarily require photographic accuracy, and in fact, some overly labored likenesses can be stiff and relatively lifeless.
The painted portrait should tell the viewer more than what the person looks like. It’s a form of theater and can be serious or fun, depending on the choices made by artist and subject. If you’ve gone to the museum and haven’t been entranced by portraits, next time try looking at them without reading the background information. If they were real people, you wouldn’t have to know right away where and when they were born, or their occupation or exact place in society. Consider them people you can stare at for a long time without being rude. Get a sense of which ones seem more alive, and which have enjoyable colors, brushwork, and textures. Some may have elaborate backgrounds that function like a stage set. You may enjoy the abstract or overt sensuality of some and the psychological insight of others.
Who are the subjects of great portrait paintings? Wives, parents, children, friends, neighbors and paramours of the artist as well as kings and queens and prime ministers. Renoir painted a restaurant proprietor, Alphonse Fournaise; Van Gogh painted the postman Joseph Roulin and his family. Velazquez, two hundred years earlier, the court painter for Philip IV of Spain, has left us lavish portraits of the royal family and also sensitive and intelligent renderings of the court jesters. You don’t need to be beautiful or royal to be the subject of a fine portrait; you only need to know a fine portrait painter.
There are two types of portraits: those that are intended for display in a gallery or museum, and those that are commissions for the person portrayed or his/her families or professional associates. A portrait can be a small head-and-shoulders view, or a full-length life-size standing figure gazing out at the viewer, or may be a moment-in-time depiction of the person doing or surrounded by something he or she loves. A writer might be shown in front of a wall of bookshelves, as Degas painted Edmond Duranty; a child might be portrayed in a living room as Mary Cassatt painted Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, in which the plush furniture and the dog are vividly complementary to the charming main subject. Cassatt created a whole scene in which you can almost feel what the girl feels, sunk comfortably into the big chair; you expect both dog and child to jump up at any moment. Another portrait might show someone in evening clothes and another might depict an athletic type dressed for his or her favorite sport.
Given that we live in the digital age, with photos and videos much easier than ever, many people might wonder what a professional portrait painting can do that their own machine-made images can’t. There can be a richness of characterization as well as of the physical application of paint. The color choices made by Sargent and the way he depicted light and shadow differ from those made by Monet, and both differ from those made by Degas and so on. Those who don’t feel the sensuality of the brushstroke, the texture of depicted objects, and the light may see these things if they spend some time looking and thinking. It is an experience I recommend most highly.
Ronnie Levine, artist and owner of Rivertown Painter’s Studio, is continuing to repaint the mural at Main Street Sweets, and does portraits as well.
Her web site is www.rivertownpainter.com.