Not every great age produced portraits. The Greeks made almost none, except on their coins, until the time of Alexander the Great, whose legions ranged over the world from India to Egypt. Alexander had his own private portrait artist, the sculptor Lysippus. That master unconsciously paralleled Alexander’s amazing conquest of space. He changed the rules of proportion that classical Greece had set down, stretching up his fingers to seven instead of six heads high. His portraits of the Emperor show wide-open eyes, hair streaming like feathers, and a bone structure that became the ideal of beauty for the Hellenistic world. It was even taken over for the first groping images of Christ.
But it is in the faces of republican Rome that we first recognize our ancestors. These iron willed, impassive men are the founding fathers of the Western world. There followed centuries when the individual was swallowed up by whirlpools of barbarian invasions. It was not until the medieval world was crumbling that portraits were made again. Then the art flourished first in the damp and busy Netherlands. There hundreds of painters bent over their small wooden panels, painting in an intriguing new material, oil, the burghers of rich wool centers like Bruges and Antwerp.
One of the first to set out to flatter a client was Piero della Francesca. A nuptial portrait was wanted for the swashbuckling ”condottiere”, Federigo da Montefeltro. Unfortunately, he had been disfigured in battle. A lance had struck him across the face, destroying one eye and making a notch in the bridge of his nose. So Piero turned the bridegroom to his good side and painted a humped and beaked nose that is almost an emblem of Renaissance heroism.
Portraiture became a kind of romantic metaphor expressing a painters own vision. Leonardo’s smiles, with their labyrinths of meaning; Titian’s tranquil, sumptuous princes; the tragical dwarfs of Velasquez; the eroded faces of Rembrandt mined from the Amsterdam ghetto, along with the images of himself. At last, in the eighteenth century, style called up a procession of rococo courtesans, dressed in the latest fashion as Roman vestial virgins and Dianas of the hunt. it was that same rococo that drained the treasuries of the three Louises, bringing about revolutions and the modern world.
Henceforth, the tastemakers would be geniuses of mechanics and industry, including Daguerre. For their part, many serious painters after Delacroix gave up all hope of painting the kind of portrait likenesses they now critically labelled ”photographic”. These artists tore their subjects apart and then reassembled the features. The most fascinating modern portraits are this kind of private, groping study. These include Manet’s model, he face blasted by sunlight; Cezanne’s wife; Van Gogh’s own wretched visage, a bandage over the mutilated ear. Picasso and matisse tortured the likeness even further, into splinters of brown pigment or flat splotches of crimson and green.
One of the bravest sitters a painter ever had is surely Mrs. Leigh Block. Mrs. Block was the wife of a Chicago steel executive and a knowing patron and collector of art. It was, therefore, with eyes wide open that she commissioned Ivan Le Lorraine Albright to paint her portrait. Albright, who was famed for painting human flesh that looks as if it had been six weeks in the grave, required Mrs. Block to sit for him two to five times a week for two years. Mrs. Block said she was pleased with it.
The portrait is a difficult genre. The painter is trying to abstract the real personality of the sitter, and the sitter, in most cases, is trying to withhold what he thinks one will get. When the sitter wins, the portrait can be mask like, but when the painter wins, the result can be disquieting. And yet, there was always the possibility of arranging that classical truce between a courageous patron and a painter under which the art of portraiture once flourished. Many of these portraits are not guaranteed to please, when a well known artist acca portrait commission, but from some of these encounters, great surprises have emerged.
In the National Gallery in Washington, hang portraits of many millionaire tycoons and Robber barons who wagered for immortality by buying up treasures around the world and establishing the museum. Most are quite conventional and almost generic and many visitors pass by these to stare at the strange, attenuated, El-Greco like visage of Philadelphia’s Joseph E. Widener. For instead of the fashionable portraitists whom some of his fellow donors hired, Widener had the courage to sit for an unconventional English romanticist, Augustus John.
Goethe said that one is never satisfied by the portrait of a person one knows. So much more of the artist himself than of the sitter lies in a portrait, in every exaggerated feature, every over stressed shade. And yet one soon forgets to be dissatisfied with a great portrait. Before long, it becomes history; and then the sitters’s ghost may be flattered by a quite different kind of immortality than even he had thought.
When Winston Churchill received the above painting as a gift on his eightieth birthday, many of his admirers said it made him look like an ”evil bilious toad”. Somewhat taken aback by the critical reception given to his Churchill by the public, Sutherland commented ruefully, ”People have their own conception of what a national hero should look like”.
”The war leader’s final period of power was marked by dwindling health and, in 1955, he retired. Sutherland was commissioned by both Houses of Parliament to paint a full-length portrait of Churchill in 1954, for which this is a study. The finished painting was presented to Churchill. It was destroyed by his wife Clementine.
Distinguishing features: The destruction of Sutherland’s painting is one of the most notorious cases of a subject disliking their portrait. This painted sketch of Churchill’s head, a study for the lost, full-length painting, suggests why. It’s not simply that Sutherland’s modernist tendencies irked the conservative tastes of the Sunday painter prime minister. This is a very unhappy painting. Old, grumpy, with an anger that no longer seems leavened by the humour and verbal creativity of the Churchill of legend, this is a reactionary curmudgeon surrounded by the shades of night.
The painting is black and rough, as if burnt, as if Churchill were emerging from the ruins of Europe, from a world not saved but shattered. The man himself still has a stoic authority; he might be the ancient Roman Cicero waiting to be murdered. There’s a sculpted quality to his sturdy bald head that reminds you of Roman busts. There’s also a sadness and sense of defeat, rather than the assertion of indomitability in the Churchill statue outside the Houses of Parliament. This is a man alone, in the real wilderness years.” ( Jonathan Jones, Guardian )