Why a Painted Portrait still matters

The art of portraiture is probably older than recorded history. The surviving portraits of early European nobility we see in museums can be traced back to icons which preceded them. Going back further in history, icons were influenced by ancient Egyptian funerary portraits, according to Hans Belting, author of a scholarly book on the history of the painted image. 

The abstract style of icons was suited for spiritual portraits of the saints and Holy Family, but not for the aristocracy. As the market for portraits of the aristocracy grew, painters developed a realistic style more suited to capturing an earthly likeness. The painted portrait became more commonplace when wealthy tradesmen could afford to have their portraits painted, too. In time, the portraits intended for the family estate became prized by collectors, and some of the best ended up on the walls of museums.

 Artists still paint portraits today, but demand has mostly disappeared. The invention of the camera altered the market. A photographic portrait is quicker and cheaper. A digital camera can take hundreds of detailed likenesses in less time than a painter can make a preparatory sketch. A digital image printed on paper costs a few dollars. Yet, a market for fine art portraiture still exists. Highly skilled portrait artists using an updated, but traditional realistic style are still sought by the wealthy. The best of the professional portrait artists charge plenty for their talent. Prices range from $3,000 for a tiny portrait of the face to $250,000 for a full-sized portrait that might grace a monarch's residence. The grand portraits and more modestly-sized portraits by specialized artists will likely become treasured heirlooms passed through the generations. At the low end of the portrait art market, little known artists will paint a portrait from your supplied photo for under $200, but the results will be less desirable. Inexpensive portraits from Internet sources are the painted equivalent of the phone camera's selfie - here today, gone tomorrow.  

 A selfie, which is a likeness taken by a mobile phone camera held at arm’s length, is all about the instant. The selfie is how a person wants to look at a particular moment.  Time is one of the key differences between a selfie and a painted portrait. The selfie, which is captured in less than a second, is almost as quickly forgotten. Some people post a new photo of themselves made with their mobile phone camera several times a week on social media. With its iPhone X, Apple recognized the importance of the selfie in marketing to youth. The front-facing camera of the iPhone X is now as fully developed as its rear-facing ones.

 In contrast to a selfie, a good painted portrait captures an eternal moment.  It’s made with centuries in mind because the pigments and archival materials will last for hundreds of years. A selfie requires little skill, but a portrait painter’s skill is developed over decades. Most people think a photographic portrait is a truer likeness than a painted portrait, a perception that isn't necessarily valid. Unless the photographer is skilled, a selfie is a superficial likeness - merely a passing cloud reflected on a puddle. A painter tries to peer beneath the surface of a likeness. This claim sounds slightly pretentious, but fine art portraits seem to capture something more than facial features and the look of the moment.

Portrait of Greta Moll by Henri Matisse

Portrait of Greta Moll by Henri Matisse

A painter can approximate a likeness, alter it, or invent features to show a truth about a person. Consider Picasso's famous portrait of Gertrude Stein or Matisse's commissioned portrait of Greta Moll. Picasso and Matisse struggled over these portraits because they were inventing a new visual language and because they were aiming at a deeper truth. A photographic likeness wasn't their aim. When people said that Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude didn’t look like her, Picasso replied that she would eventually look like his portrait. And she did, so the story goes.

Greta Moll posed for ten days for Matisse. Initially Greta and her husband were pleased with the likeness. Matisse wasn't satisfied with it. He reworked the painting, simplifying it and removing the surface likeness in his effort to express Greta's character. Seeing the changes, Greta and her husband were dismayed, but they paid for the painting, lived with it, and gradually they loved it. Now Matisse’s portrait of Greta Moll is in the National Gallery of Art.

Weeping Woman by Pablo Picasso

Weeping Woman by Pablo Picasso

Being remembered is an important purpose of a portrait. One of Picasso’s most famous portraits of his mistress, Dora Marr, was probably not pleasing to her. Picasso claimed she was constantly weeping so he painted her with tears. It may not be the way she would want to be remembered, but the portrait of Dora Marr is world famous, and worth millions. The painting may be insensitive to his mistress, but it is a striking, memorable work of art.


Unlike Dora Marr, Gertrude Stein liked Picasso's portrait of her. Once seen, the portrait is unforgettable.

Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso

Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso

If being remembered is one of the purposes of a portrait, a portrait that merely flatters is forgettable. Fakery isn't memorable. A good likeness is not about flattery. In producing a portrait that pleases, a photographer and a painter are more successful when they have an emotional link to the model that is expressed in the portrait. How we feel about someone alters their physical appearance. I call the heart's sympathetic transformation of physical appearances the screen of affection. A simple example of a screen of affection through which we see others might be a description of the changes in someone's appearance between the heat of a romance, and when that romance has become cold. Same person, but in the heat of romance a person is particularly attractive; in the ashes of the relationship, the person's appearance might be repellent.

My most satisfying portraits are made with a screen of affection. I'm interested in a likeness that includes a warm inner truth seen through my regard for the person.  I have a screen of affection for family members and friends, so I find it easier to paint someone I know well. I can’t imagine painting a decent portrait of a stranger from a photograph sent to me as an email attachment.

Painting portraits for money can be stressful under the best of circumstances.  I've painted commissioned portraits, but I don't like feeling anxious over whether the results will please, and because of my anxiety, compromising what I want to do. I don't accept commissions anymore. Now I paint a likeness of person because it might be part of a series of paintings that has a purpose for me other than portraiture - such as the Color Personified Series or the Lake Padden Series. I might achieve a good likeness, but portraiture is not my objective. Sometimes I am motivated to paint a portrait because something about a person fascinates me.  I might also paint a portrait because I love the person. The latter reason explains my portraits of my daughters Elisa, Claire, and my recent portrait of Christine.

A high-quality, painted portrait still matters.  Artists with talent for portraiture can create an image which is more than likeness, whether pleasing or not.  It will cost more than a photograph, but a painted portrait made with archival materials is an heirloom that will last for centuries. Who knows? The portrait could end up on a museum wall where it will be appreciated by thousands of visitors.


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