Portrait Art: The Human Element

Ice Age Galleries - Cave Paintings

The earliest beginnings of portrait art are most likely found as drawings hidden deep inside the rocky caves of Africa, Spain or France. These were lifelike depictions of animals drawn in charcoal and stained with natural materials like berries and leaves. But why are the drawings there, so deep inside the earth that some can only be reached by crawling on your hands and knees?

Historians have speculated that the drawings were made for several reasons of a practical nature including magic rituals, artistic expression and the recording of historical events. The first cave art was discovered by a young girl in 1870 in Altamira, Spain, while she was exploring a cavern. While she was looking around in the cave, as her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she slowly began to see drawings of a herd of bison racing across the ceiling.

What might be called the most famous cave portraits may be found in Lascaux, France, as very lifelike images of bison, deer, reindeer, mammoth and other wild animals drawn with great realism and vigor. Perhaps the artwork was used in rituals to pray to the unknown for a good hunt or to protect the people from harm. Or maybe they are documentations of hunting expeditions or it could be someone just wanted to see if he could draw a lifelike image of an animal!

Ancient Cultures

The ancient Egyptian culture depended enormously on drawings and paintings to record history, make appeals to their gods and engage in business transactions. Their art consisted of wall paintings, portrait sculptures and jewelry; their artists and craftsmen were highly valued within the strict social structure. The elegantly painted portrait bust of Queen Nefertiti, made around 1360 BC out of limestone, is twenty inches of graceful beauty with accents of real gold. It is the most famous portrait bust in the history of Egypt and prized for its elegant presentation of Egyptian beauty. The death mask of King Tutankhamen that was placed in the innermost coffin of his tomb in Thebes in 1323 BC was solid gold inlaid with semiprecious stones. These treasures show Egyptian pride, power and affluence.

The ancient Greek culture honored their many gods and goddesses by sculpting larger than life marble images of themselves in the form of man or woman. An idealized, stylized form was used to represent a general, not one specific, formula of divine beauty. The goal of the ancient Greek people was to emulate the perfection of their gods and goddesses. The marble “Aphrodite” sculpture, often called Venus de Milo, displays the classic s-curve stance, oval face and curly hair of the Classical formula. The Greek Hellenistic style, however, displays far more emotional expression and movement as seen in the later “Laocoon and his Sons” which shows us a scene from “The Aeneid.”

Venus de Milo, Louvre, Paris

The ancient Romans made original, realistic looking portrait sculptures, rather than idealized images, to honor their emperors each with its very specific image. The portrait busts were cast in bronze or sculpted in marble and allowed the people throughout the vast Roman Empire to become acquainted with realistic likenesses of each of their rulers. Portrait busts were carved out of marble for each of the emperors and also for wealthy individuals who desired commemoration. The Emperor Constantine had a colossal sculpture carved to represent himself as an overwhelming power, The head of the sculpture, eight feet by six inches tall, remains in Rome as a testament to his position as the absolute ruler.

Roman wall paintings adorned the interiors of the homes and were filled with portraits of their citizens playing music, writing letters or just relaxing. Since the Roman artists had mastered the technique of perspective, depicting three dimensional space on a flat surface, the wall paintings created the illusion of a larger room. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has reconstructed the bedroom of an Italian villa from around 50 BC. The wall murals in the bedroom show women and children with very individualized features, clothing and hairstyles going about their daily lives.

Famous Artists

European art and architecture is filled with portraits: drawings, paintings, mosaics, wall paintings, relief work and sculptures. From the Medieval period through the Baroque periods, art focused on religion, all aspects of worship and educating the people through visual stories. Medieval manuscripts were decorated with elaborate, intricate illuminated designs painted in colored inks and real gold.

Oil paintings were painted on wooden panels and walls during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to speak to the people. Religious scenes show individual human emotions and individual facial expressions painted in brilliant colors with gold leaf for haloes.

During the Renaissance, artists also painted portraits of rulers, wealthy people and self-portraits to record their places in history. “Mona Lisa” was painted in 1503-1506 by Leonardo da Vinci in oil paint on a small wooden panel, just about 30 inches by 21 inches. She is shown in a relaxed pose in front of a fictional landscape, maybe even with a painting behind her, in a three-quarter pose, looking directly at the viewer with a sweet smile. Most remarkable about the painting is Leonardo’s use of hazy shadowing, or sfumato, which allowed him to create the sense of endless depth in the space behind the figure.

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Marble sculptures were also created as portraits such as the “Pieta” and the “David” by Michelangelo. These were larger than life tributes to religious images and stories carved intricately and polished to a high gleam. They are powerful in size, emotional intensity and effect upon the viewer.

While Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were busy with large commissions, Raphael Sanzio painted pictures of Madonnas and portraits until he was summoned to be the court painter for the Vatican in Rome. His monumental “The School of Athens” is considered his masterpiece fresco since it seems to embody the spirit of the high Renaissance. There are many emotions depicted; the central figures represent Aristotle and Plato in the middle of a discussion, surrounded by figures gesturing, listening, shouting, and lamenting. Some are historical figures such as Pythagoras, Euclid and Socrates, while many others are portraits of his contemporaries. Raphael included his self-portrait also, as a bystander of the gathering. In his circular shaped painting, “The Alba Madonna”, Raphael shows us his idealized version of Mary, John the Baptist and the Christ Child sitting in a peaceful outdoor scene. Time almost seems suspended in their world of light, soft skin tones and calm blues and greens; this painting seems to say “peace”.

Gianlorenzo Bernini was one of the most fiery and influential artists of the Baroque period. His sculptures and portraits are filled with energetic motion and expressive emotions. Bernini’s dramatic sculpture of “David”, although less than half as tall as Michelangelo’s “David”, becomes a part of the viewer’s world. At five feet, seven inches tall, the powerful twisted figure is paused in his action, about to hurl a rock at his opponent. No imagination is needed to feel the anger and determination that Michelangelo worked into this stone image.

Native American Indians drew and painted to record their history, honor their Chiefs and tribal elders as well as to keep track of their hunts. The Anasazi Indians of the southwest United States decorated their kivas, the male council centers, with elaborate painted murals depicting the deities responsible for successful crops. The paintings of lightning bolts, seeds, fish, eagles, rainbows and “lightning men” tell stories of the fertility of the earth and the seasonal rains. Many detailed portraits of Chiefs were created to record the colorful tribal markings and distinctive garments specific to each tribe and rank. Large buffalo skins were painted with visual timelines of the annual hunts to indicate how many animals of each type were killed for the tribe.

The earliest settlers in the American colonies had no time or place their lives for many of the European cultural activities, such as drawing, painting or music, but they did believe in creating records of their images for historical reasons. Colonial craftsmen, called limners, traveled from town to town to paint likenesses as well as signs for businesses, barn doors and homes. They were not yet called artists in the “new world”.

John Singleton Copley was a completely self-taught artist whose parents sailed to Boston, Massachusetts, from County Claire, Ireland, in 1736. He complained that the people in Boston only cared about portraits and the quality of likeness; there were no public art institutions, like the Royal Academy in London, to mark the artist as a professional. Therefore, Copley decided, as did many American artists of that time, that he needed to go to Europe if he desired further training and commented upon the idea of returning to America: What then would I do…”bury my improvements among people entirely destitute of all just ideas of the arts?”

Why Portraits?

So why did people begin to make portraits and what are they trying to say through them? It depends very much upon the time and place in the course of history. The earliest people were appealing to unknown powers, much like later cultures appealed to their god and goddesses. Europeans wanted portraits to honor them, remind others of their considerable prosperity and fine family standings. Many cultures, like the Ancient Egyptians and the Native American Indians, recorded history through their portraits of rulers and chiefs.

What does it feel like, for the one posing or sitting, to pose for a portrait? And what does it feel like, for the artist, to create the portrait? Both of these activities are very personal, intimate endeavors.

National Portrait Gallery

The person who is posing may experience several feelings. There is often the boredom of the long period of trying to remain still but also the uneasiness of having someone study them so intensely. The poser might wonder if the artist is making judgments about their appearance; does the artist think my nose is too big, my legs are too heavy or I just look awkward? One might wonder if the artist enjoyed making portraits or had to do the work to make some money.

There is also tremendous worry associated with what the finished portrait might look like for both parties; will it be a good likeness or will it be disappointing or embarrassing? Portraits usually require multiple sittings or standings; what if the likeness is not beginning to look anything like the poser even after several sessions? What if the poser is just getting a backache from the endless sitting or standing?

For the artist, there is an eerie sensation of connecting with a person who is posing for you; it is like you are touching them, but not really, not physically. Learning to depict the human figure is part of an artist’s training so figure drawing is a basic study. School courses sometimes use plaster models based on Greek or Roman sculptures but many hire live models. The first few classes in figure drawing may be unsettling to students but the model is usually completely at ease. Good models are anxious to please the artists, will try to repeat the desired pose as closely as possible every time and will be interested in the results.

There are endless accounts of artists becoming romantically involved with their models and it is not hard to figure out why. Spending hours together in such an intimate activity may produce sparks of romance.

Portraits can be created out of any art materials. The early cave artists used  charcoal left from fires and berries or leaves found in nature. Native American Indian art was painted on animal skins, paper or cardboard in watercolors or oil paints. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans made portraits in marble and painted murals on their walls adorned with real gold. Most of the European and American portraits were painted in oil paints on wooden panels or canvases. During the Renaissance, artists often did sketches of ideas for portraits with pencils and pastels.

Written by: Cindy Wright

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