The unknown lady below sat for this luminous portrait in the middle of the fifteenth century. Her cone shaped henin is fastened with a velvet loop beneath her chin and pushed back to reveal the high, plucked forehead so much admired in her time. Aloof and tranquil, she gazes obliquely at her painter, the Flemish master Petrus Christus. The painting is entitled ”Portrait of a Young Girl”. Modern portrait painting is a lot similar and different as well. Still, it involves the age-old contest between artist and sitter.
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres was the most brilliant portrait painter of his day. Napoleon sat for him; so did the Duke of Orleans and the intellectual elite of Italy and France. But his agony over these commissions was famous. An apocryphal story is told about a distinguished editor, Monsieur Bertin, whose sessions before the master had dragged on for months. Finally, Ingres slammed down his crayon, announcing that he washed his hands of the whole business. ”Quoi” croaked Bertin, clapping his hammy hands to his knees in exasperation. ”Tiens!” cried the artist, ”The pose at last!” And thereupon he finished the picture, one of his greatest, in no time at all.
The question that beset Ingres is at the very heart of modern portraiture. What is likeness, they ask, and how can it be found? if it is only the face, then any educated painter can set it down.Ingres threw away hundreds of respectable sketches en route to the last. Upon technical know how, pure and simple, a quite lucrative modern portrait industry is built.
But if likeness includes the breath of life, and all the vaporous ghosts which modern psychology has flushed out; if it includes even the face of a nation and an epoch, then something more than technique is called for. These are artists who share very little with commercial portraitists. Classical portraiture depended on an amiable kind of truce between the artist and his sitter. The subject refrained from making finicky demands, and the painter agreed that his first job was to present the facts. He squinted along his brush to size up the body, mixed and remixed colors to match the precise hue of the eyes. Then, once he had set down a skeleton of reality, he was more or less free to make his own comments, as Goya did with his devastating Spanish portraits.
But when classical principles break down, the confusion about likeness can erupt. Michelangelo, as the Rnaissance world was crumbling, scornfully turned his back on portraiture. Reproached for not making his Medici tomb figures into correct likeness, he scoffed that in a century no one would know the difference. Three hundred years later, Ingres trumpeted a new era of revolution. All his brilliant classical draftsmanship only helped him along the way. The ”moment juste” had to be pounced upon, lie an enemy agent.
The French Revolution had sapped classical portraiture of its lifeblood of rich, rather narcissistic noblemen with time on their hands. Another blow to the art was given, only five years after Ingres had painted Bertin, by the invention of the Daguerreotype process. The camera quickly became the rage of the nineteenth-century. It was ingratiatingly cheap and quick, and in its tricky kind of truth, a revelation. Delacroix, a bitter enemy of Ingres’ classicism , said that beside a photograph of the naked human body even a raphael looked out of kilter.
Suddenly, artists realized that no brush could copy a true likeness. The very eye of the painter lied to him; his heart swerved his brush. This shocking insight was like a reef on which the art of portraiture broke into pieces. At first, even the conventional portrait industry foundered. In the New World, country limners and ”fancy painters” lost their trade to the photographers. In Europe, there were soon no more customers for those fastidious miniatures on ivory or wood that had been family heirloms since the time of Elizabeth I.
But, like many other services, commercial portraiture revived on the wave of prosperity in our time. Today it commands high fees and an impressive roster of artists, though it cannot compete with the most famous portrait boom in history, that in seventeenth-century Holland. The so many painters sweated to supply the newly rich burghers in their spanking mansions that surplus production had to be auctioned off, given away at lotteries and sold at market like tulip bulbs.
In the 195o’s and 1960’s modern portraiture took the form of ”conversation pieces” . Decorous and gentle, it suggests a kind of warm domesticity that a camera, with its eye for fact, could hardly achieve without fancy lighting effects. In return, the artists demanded a certain laissez faire from the sitters. This often involved exploiting hesitant little currents of style as they filtered down from the radical inventions of avant-garde painting. William Draper’s manner was brushy and loose and the splashy, casual, but immensely elegant style of John Singer Sargent was also in demand. Pietro Annigoni conveyed great splendor through the historical mold; Florentine Renaissance brushwork and a slick paint surface impressed more with the style than the qualities of the sitters.
All kinds of tricks and ruses have been devised by portrait artists to extract that subtle emanation of personality which it took Ingres months to evoke. When commissioned to paint Dr. C.W. Mayo, William Draper even went to far as to put on a mask and follow his subject to the operating table. He was so struck by the surgeons performance there that he painted him where he stood, by a wash up sink, in rubber gloves and sterile gown.