Gender and Portraiture
Gender and Portraiture
Like age, the sitter’s gender is a key factor in understanding the ways portraits represent their subjects in different places and times. ‘Gender’ refers to those qualities of masculinity and femininity that are both physical and social. In different historical periods there have been variations in what was considered appropriate for male and female behaviour, although some believe differences between men and women are universal because they are biologically determined rather than socially constructed. Individual portraitists have chosen to focus on
different aspects of men’s and women’s social roles, physical features, or character, depending on many variables, including the gender politics of their time.
In considering the history of portraiture in relation to the subject of gender, the gender of both artist and sitter needs to be taken into account. In terms of the gender of the artist, it is important to note that
many women artists who made a living from their work before the twentieth century were portraitists. There are a number of social and historical reasons for this. Self-portraits or portraits of close family or friends could be produced in the home: in periods in which middleclass women were expected to spend most of their time in a domestic
environment, they could thus practise portraiture without breaching the rules of social decorum. However, portraits were also considered a low and mechanical genre of art for many centuries, and women were traditionally viewed as creatively limited and best at arts that required imitation rather than creation. Thus portraiture could be justified as an acceptable practice for women artists, even before the twentieth century when women began to have a more prominent role in the professional art world. There are, therefore, many examples of portraits produced by
women, as well as by men.
The gender of the artist is one fact; the gender of the sitter another. The ways male and female artists interact with and represent male and female sitters further complicate the role of gender in portraiture. In certain contexts, a male portraitist may have a different approach to his subject than a woman contemporary, and men and women artists may respond differently to male and female sitters. Such differences can relate to both social expectations and artistic practice. Arguably it is dangerous to make a sweeping claim that there is always a fundamental difference between portraits that represent men and those that represent women, although it is often possible to discern differences that can be attributed to the gender expectations of the time when the works
were produced. A specific comparison between the way a male and a female artist produce portraits within the same artistic milieu opens up the issues at stake here. The German artists Otto Dix and Lotte Laserstein both painted portraits of women in the mid-1920s, and both artists practised the ostensibly detached observation of nature that
characterized the ‘New Objectivity’ art movement of Weimar Germany [91 and 92]. Both portraits represent professional women who adopted the androgynous fashion of the time: Dix depicted the Bohemian journalist Sylvia von Harden, and Laserstein represented herself painting in her studio. Here the similarities end. Laserstein’s
self-portrait presents her as a startlingly masculine woman, attired in a painter’s smock that could be a man’s shirt. The addition of her cat as a prop serves both to humanize and domesticate the image, and her stare
into the mirror but also out at the viewer is engaging in its concentration and purpose. Dix in portraying Sylvia von Harden expresses her androgyny in a different way: the bubikopf haircut contrasts with von Harden’s excessive lipstick and manicured nails. Dix elongated her hands to give her a monstrous quality, and she is shown in disarray, with a crumpled stocking and an awkward pose. Dix’s portrait strays into the realm of stereotype, even caricature. Partly there is a difference between the ‘objective’ view of the male artist and the subjective self-image of the woman artist; the two works also express the divergent roles these artists assumed within their social and artistic worlds. Dix’s particular approach to representation consisted of many vicious satires on men as
well as women, which reflected a bitter engagement with what he saw to be the evils of post-First World War Germany. Laserstein, on the other hand, was one of Weimar Germany’s many ‘new women’, who advocated equality with men in terms of pay and lifestyle. Such distinctions elucidate the ways gender can enter portraiture on many different levels: these include the concerns of particular artists, the ways they represent themselves and others, the gender politics of their time and place, and fashions of male and female dress and behaviour.
The question of gender in portraiture needs to encompass portraits of both men and women by both men and women, and it is therefore of relevance to all portraiture. The ways portraitists negotiate dominant and subordinate ideas of gender in their own time is present in every portrait, but there are portraits in which the gender of the sitter is a more obvious or intrusive element of production, representation, or reception, as in the portraits by Laserstein and Dix. Although in this chapter gender is being considered as a separate theme, the issues it raises are relevant to all portraits at all times, and constructions of gender therefore need to be noted whenever a portrait is viewed or studied.
Women, beauty, and allegory Many portraits of women represent them in roles: goddesses such as Juno or Hebe, historical or religious figures like Mary Magdalene, Muses such as Euterpe (Music) or Thalia (Comedy), or allegorical embodiments such as ‘Painting’ or ‘Beauty’. Such slippages between the portrayal of women and the embodiment of abstractions has been interpreted as denying women the kind of character and public roles
emphasized so often in portraits of men.2 This is the argument of Felicity Edholm, for example, who sees the roles of women in portraiture as a negative sign of their social repression in the past: Behind many portraits . . . is an assumption of a biography, a known or knowable story, for men in particular a story of potential when young and achievement when middle-aged. Women’s lives and faces cannot tell the same story . . .
in terms of representation, it is beauty—or if not that, due modesty and gracefulness—when young, and the loss of beauty when old.
However, the sheer variety of these allegorical representations and their imaginative employment by both male and female artists can also open up the possibilities of seeing women outside the constraints of their domestic and social roles. Although the qualities of women that are valued have changed significantly, given the checks on women’s public roles before the modern period, portraitists often chose to represent women in terms of these more abstract qualities.
The origins of the tendency to view women allegorically can be traced to fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy. Here several factors combined to inspire portraits of women that related them to abstract ideas of beauty rather than status or character.
By the sixteenth century the profile view was superseded by half- or three-quarter-length portraits of women with most of their face visible. Such portraits were particularly common in the work of Venetian artists such as Titian, Giorgione, and Palma Vecchio. Portraits of women by these artists tend to be less individualized than those of men by the same artists.4 We can no longer identify the sitters of many of these works, which now have vague titles such as La Bella (‘Beauty’).
The anonymity of the sitter and the stress on generalized beauty give these works affinities with allegorical painting, as the sitters seem to be models rather than identifiable individuals.5 The gender implications of
such an emphasis are that these works were intended to represent ideal beauty rather than the likeness of any individual woman. However, Lomazzo’s treatise on art reduced decorum in female portraiture to beauty, which suggests that these artists were working within the accepted conventions of contemporary portraiture.
Contemporary conventions of literary portraiture offer further evidenceon this point. In Italy during the sixteenth century, treatises written on the beauty of women included literary portraits of particular individuals, such as I ritratti (‘Portraits’), a poem written for Isabella d’Este by the Vicenza humanist Gian Giorgio Trissino.
Among Titian’s unidentified portraits, this representation of a beautiful woman bears some similarity to faces in other portraits, such as that of a girl in a fur cape.
In such poems and literary portraits, conventional characteristics of beauty were repeated formulaically, regardless of the real physical
attributes of the women they purported to describe.8 These series of relationships between ideal beauty, poetry, and portraits of women set up a strong tradition of idealization in portraits of women that spread beyond Italy to other European countries affected by Italian Renaissance aesthetics.
One of the effects of these associations between women, ideal beauty, and poetry was a tendency to collect portraits of ‘beauties’— which also can be traced to early modern Italy. In 1473 Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza began amassing portraits of beautiful women that he displayed in a similar way to Paolo Giovio’s collection of famous men in Como. Other Italian aristocrats, such as the Duke of Mantua in 1604, followed Sforza’s lead and created portrait galleries of beautiful women. This collecting practice was adopted throughout Europe and was particularly strong in late seventeenth- and early eighteenthcentury court cultures. There were collections of beauties in the courts
of Denmark and France, as well as in Electoral collections throughout Germany and in central Europe. Notable examples of these collections of beauties were in England and consisted of groups of portraits by Peter Lely at Hampton Court and, in the next generation, by Godfrey Kneller at Windsor Castle. Lely, for example, painted portraits of aristocratic women who were prominent in the Stuart court. The portraits were produced in a standard size and format, and Lely stressed the similarities between the women rather than their differences. The
emphasis on ideal beauty was a legacy from the poetic portraits of the early sixteenth century, and as with those portraits, the likenesses of the individual women were minimized in favour of the qualities for which
Although portrait collections of beauties became less common by the second half of the eighteenth century, in both eighteenth-century France and England there was a vogue for portraits of women wearing antique dress or in character roles, usually from classical mythology, especially goddesses, famous mistresses from classical literature, or one of the Three Graces.10 Such portraits could be highly theatrical, and role play and allegory could blend together. Artists such as Jean-Marc Nattier and Nicolas de Largillière in France and Reynolds  and
George Romney in England posed their women sitters in such classical roles, ostensibly as a way of elevating the portrait by linking it explicitly with the subject matter of history painting. Such portraits were in many
ways transgressive because they represented aristocrats posing in the guise of characters from classical literature not renowned for their moral virtues. While the fantasy quality of these portraits enabled women to be seen in more varied and imaginative roles than those prescribed by their society, they also represented women as erotic objects and could objectify them by stressing the role itself, rather than the individuality of the women depicted.
The tendency to represent women ideally, allegorically, or theatrically in portraits persisted into the nineteenth century. By the midnineteenth century, the variety of roles in which women were cast in portraits became much larger, encompassing not only allegorical figures but heroines from literature and history. As many of these
models were women who had been lovers of the male artists in the group, the relationship between the artist and the model becomes an important factor in understanding their work. For example, several artists of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and Walter Deverell, employed the millinery shop assistant Elizabeth Siddal as a model in their representation of scenes from Shakespeare, Dante, Tennyson, and other writers. When Rossetti became Siddal’s lover, he produced pencil portraits that represented her in poses of longing and languor—overlaying the ‘real’ Siddal with the trappings of a fictional or tragic figure. Rossetti frequently cast Siddal in the character of Beatrice from Dante’s love poem, La Vita nuova (‘The New Life’), alluding to his intimate relationship with her by taking on the metaphorical role of his namesake. We can see Rossetti transferring the ideal qualities of Dante’s Beatrice into the real portrait of his erstwhile lover, Siddal. However, Siddal was an artist as well, and her own self-portrait reveals not a languorous and anorexic beauty but a tired and anxious woman. Siddal’s ostensibly down-to-earth portrayal of herself is another kind of partial truth—a portrait of fatigue and unhappiness rather than beauty and transcendence. But it serves as a
foil for imaginative extremes of Rossetti’s representations, and the way he subsumed the portrait of his lover into an ideal vision.
The most famous example of this is the Self-portrait as ‘La Pittura’ by the Italian seventeenth-century artist Artemisia Gentileschi. Here Gentileschi engaged with the allegorical tradition of female portraiture in several striking ways. First of all, she showed herself in the act of painting, thus occupied in her professional activity.
Furthermore, she did not present herself in an idealized way, but portrayed the act of painting as something that is hard work, distracting, and requiring great energy. She stressed the qualities of concentration and distraction by painting her hair in a disorderly state. In opposition to this evidence of absorption, Gentileschi is wearing a garment that would have perhaps been inappropriate for the mess of a painting room. However, while she represented herself both as an artist and as a fashionable woman, she also portrayed herself allegorically, as Mary Garrard has shown.12 Engaging with iconography manuals such as Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, Gentileschi embodied herself as the allegory of ‘La Pittura’ or ‘Painting’. Thus it could be said that in this very unusual self-portrait Gentileschi is complicit in the tendency of portraitists to generalize their women subjects. However, she is also self-consciously manipulating a set of conventions, and the very fact that she portrayed herself in this way offers a unique contribution to the corpus of women’s self-portraiture.
Other women artists also used different tactics of generalization or idealization in their self-portraits. The eighteenth-century artists Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and Angelica Kauffmann both portrayed themselves as beautiful, even though in Kauffmann’s case some of the self-portraits were done when she was over 50 years old. Vigée-Lebrun’s
Self-portrait in a Straw Hat  is one such work. Like Gentileschi, Vigée-Lebrun represented herself fashionably dressed. Although she is holding a palette, the effect of her dress and straw hat suggests that she is attired for one of her famous conversation ‘salons’ rather than for the artist’s studio. However, Vigée-Lebrun modelled this virtuosic self-portrait on Rubens’s painting Susannah Fourment (1622–5) that Vigée-Lebrun had seen in Antwerp. The homage to Rubens is partly a comment on the artistic inspiration his work provided, as Vigée- Lebrun allied herself with Rubens’s skill as a colourist. However, the allusion to Rubens also places the artist in the tradition of old master portraiture, and Vigée-Lebrun thus confidently asserts her artistic integrity and prominent place in the history of art. As with other forms of elevation, idealization, and allegory, Vigée-Lebrun’s self-portrait is
thus both a limiting and enabling image.
Women artists did not confine such allegorization or idealization to self-portraiture. For example the nineteenth-century English photographer Julia Margaret Cameron created a clear distinction between photographic portraits of men like Tennyson and Carlyle, who were shown as themselves, and women models such as Maria Spartali and Alice Liddell, who were represented playing fanciful roles such as Circe and Pomona.
There are many ways of interpreting the allegorical or idealized nature of portraits of women. It could be argued that such portraits denied women the individuality assigned to men by confining their representations to generic physical or moral qualities rather than their distinct personalities or physical appearances. However, in ages when
many women’s positions in society were constrained, such portraits allowed them to break out of their conventional roles and assume the guises of mythological or allegorical figures, or to be shown in ways that might be construed as playful or transgressive.
Changing notions of masculinity in portraiture
Portraits of women frequently stress the beauty or ideal quality of their subjects, and it has been argued that this is a recurrent motif in the history of portraiture. Portraits of men vary rather more in the ways they
represent aspects of gender, although here too there are certain historical continuities. Before the modern period men dominated political and public spheres, and their social roles were often seen as inextricably bound up with their public position. Thus portraits of men in the past more frequently alluded to their social, professional, or political role than did portraits of women. This could be expressed in terms of costume, setting, or other symbolic accoutrements extraneous to the physical body of the sitter. These signals of status, position, and public
role could accompany other elements in portraiture to project qualities of masculinity and male virtue that were valued in specific periods among particular classes of society. For example, the kind of male behaviour, dress, and social interaction valued in a court might be diametrically opposed to the milieu of the servant class in that same society.
Many portraits of men appear at first glance to express the masculinity of their subjects in a way that we could recognize today as stereotyped. Equestrian portraits, for example, show men as powerful and indomitable, possessing both physical and moral strength.
Portraits of male leaders often present them in a commanding position, surrounded by symbols of military or political achievement, or exhibiting other signs of power or authority.
However, at times when courtly manners were considered to be a prerequisite for a gentleman, men could be shown as graceful or elegant, as this could be considered a desirable quality, especially for upper-class men. The attributes of physical beauty were often assigned to women, but in the sixteenth century these same qualities could distinguish men of a higher class. This can be seen, for example, in early sixteenthcentury Italian portraits by court artists such as Bronzino who represented courtiers as graceful in the deportment of their bodies.14 It was
perhaps this approach to the qualities of masculinity that made it possible for Bronzino to paint the nude portrait of Cosimo I de’ Medici in the character of Orpheus. Cosimo is here shown not as an authoritative political figure but as the mythological character who was able to control the beasts through music. The reference to Orpheus may allude to Cosimo’s patronage of the arts or to his power at a time when the Medici were regaining their political ascendancy in Florence, but it is significant that he could be shown with a body that is masculine in its musculature, but androgynous in its curving elegance. Ideas of effeminacy are always culturally specific, and although Bronzino’s portraits may appear effeminate to a twenty-first-century eye, elite viewers in sixteenth-century Italy would have discerned familiar qualities of deportment and elegance that were seen as desirable in male public behaviour.
What today may seem to be effeminacy in portraits of men has recurred in different periods in the history of portraiture, but the reasons it became popular could vary greatly. A famous eighteenth-century portrait of the English poet Brooke Boothby painted by Joseph Wright of Derby is another example of an elision between masculinity and femininity in a male portrait. Boothby is shown lying in a posture that was traditionally associated with women, especially courtesans, in Renaissance painting. Wright stresses the S-curve of Boothby’s body and his relaxation, in direct contrast to contemporary male portraits that characteristically represented the subject standing. The meaning of this portrait can be discerned by examining the clues Wright provides in the setting. Boothby is in a forest, reading the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose ideas of the purity of rural life and the nobility of the countryside were well known to him. Rousseau’s encouragement of the natural qualities of human beings started a Europe-wide tendency to value the public expression of emotions; for a time it was considered acceptable, even desirable, for men as well as women to show their feelings openly in public. In contrast with what might be consideredtraces of femininity, Wright’s portrait also recalls poses commonly used in Elizabethan miniature painting, in which a reclining figure was seen to be beset by melancholy humours. Melancholy had a long association with masculine creativity, and thus the gender signals in Brooke Boothby’s portrait are complex and paradoxical.
The representation of masculinity and its manifestations has become much more self-conscious in recent portraiture. This is particularly the case for some gay artists, who have openly explored the relationship between their male and sexual identities. The American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe most notably engaged with this relationship in his various photographic portraits and self-portraits. Mapplethorpe photographed himself in a number of different roles—with made-up face, or with leather jacket and cigarette, or nude in a state of bondage. His portraits of other men are frequently sexually explicit, even while they are oddly detached in their concentration on the aesthetic qualities of the male body rather than the sexual act being performed. Many of Mapplethorpe’s photographs objectify the body in this way and force the viewer to see it as an abstract pattern rather than a depiction of flesh. In this respect, Mapplethorpe’s smooth expanses of male flesh are not unlike those of Bronzino in his portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici. What has changed in the representation of masculinity between the sixteenth and the late twentieth century is the degree of self-consciousness in the treatment of issues of masculinity and male identity.