Nearly all the portraits that have been discussed in this book so far have represented individual sitters. Another important category is group portraiture, which includes two or more individuals who usually have some sort of relationship based on legal contract, blood ties, or professional or personal affiliation. Just as individual identity can be represented in many different ways, so group identities are subject to contemporary conceptions about the purpose and function of families, institutions, and professional circles. However, group portraiture also
encompasses elements that distinguish it from portraits of individuals.
First of all, the stylistic and technical issues facing artists in producing group portraiture are more complex than those of portraits depicting single sitters. As soon as there is more than one sitter, the conventions
of posed formality so common in individual portraits are challenged and the possibilities of how to represent the figures are multiplied.
In this respect group portraiture has often had an affinity with theatrical performance, as figures can be shown interacting with each other as well as posing for the portraitist. A second and related aspect of group portraiture is the way a portraitist may deal with relationships among the individuals represented. Whether the group is a family, friends, or members of the same institution, their juxtaposition begs questions about what their connection was and how their contemporaries understood it.
In more formal group portraits such relationships may be shown spatially rather than psychologically. For example, in periods of patriarchal dominance the father of a family may have the most prominent for commissioning and displaying group portraits can include the desire to create or demonstrate a sense of shared identity. A group portrait can say a great deal about the significance of a specific group at a particular time. Just as the gestures, setting, and costume of an individual portrait may provide signals of status or authority, the ways familial or professional identities were shared is often the subtext of group portraiture.
How such portraits were used, who commissioned them, and where they were hung all contribute to the issue of how group identity was both conceived and conveyed.
An unusual group portrait by Titian showing Pope Paul III, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, and Duke Ottavio Farnese demonstrates each of these points. On the one hand this is a portrait of members of the powerful Farnese family; on the other it is a hierarchical portrait about status and institutional affiliation in its depiction of important men in the sixteenth-century Catholic Church. Titian had to engage with the stylistic problems of including three known sitters within the same composition, and he had to find a way of demonstrating their relationships with each other, relationships which were both personal and institutional, generational, and hierarchical. Titian indicates the public status of his sitters through costume, gesture, and setting. The Pope sits in a chair in the established position of an authoritative ruler; all three figures wear clothes that indicate their public role. These spatial and gestural signs of their formal relationship are countered by the ambiguous
psychological interaction that Titian develops among them. The ambiguities in this portrait are intensified when more information about the sitters is brought to bear on the interpretation. Early in his papacy, Paul III had promoted the career of both of his grandsons—securing the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza for Ottavio’s father (which
passed to Ottavio), and the position of cardinal for Alessandro. In 1545 Paul III summoned the Council of Trent to initiate reforms and he decided to remove the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza from Ottavio’s control. This led Ottavio and Alessandro to negotiate secretly with Emperor Charles V to retain this power. Paul III perceived this as a betrayal, from which he never recovered.
Titian’s portrait was painted in the early stages of this tense set of familial and political negotiations. The Pope appears aged, wizened, and irritable. The gestures and postures of his grandsons have been interpreted variously as obsequious, conspiratorial, or courtly. Titian’s group portrait thus represents a set of relationships that function on more than one level—public, personal, and psychological. To an extent these elements are characteristic of all group portraits.
There are many different kinds of group portraits, but this chapter will focus on three principal types: portraits of families, portraits of civic and institutional groups, and portraits of artistic circles. In each case the
place in a family portrait; or if a club or militia group is represented, the president or leader might take up more space on the canvas than the other figures.
A final key factor in understanding group portraiture is the social Detail of 80 context in which the work was commissioned and received. The reasons portraits show the artists’ engagements with the aesthetic, psychological,
and social problems of representing more than one known sitter within the same compositional format.
Family and marriage portraits One of the most common types of group portraiture is that which represents
members of the same family. Portraits of families can be traced back to ancient Egypt, and have taken many different forms. Some show an entire extended family together; others single out husbands and wives, or parents and children. In each case the family portrait originates from some conception of why a family is important, and
therefore can reveal a great deal about the perceptions of the family at different points in history. A family is a collective body of persons related legally, emotionally, or by blood, but this simple definition belies a range of different conceptions. Ideas of family have varied from the closed ‘nuclear family’ group of mother, father, and children, to more open extended families, including aunts, uncles, grandparents, and so on, to a twenty-first century notion of the family, which frequently includes a wider range of emotional and legal relations, such as stepparents, unmarried partners, or adopted children. When artists represented a whole family, or part of it, they were engaging with contemporary expectations and preconceptions about the family as well as with the experience of family life in their own time.
Although ideas of what comprises a family have changed, family portraiture has followed certain trends. Two famous early family portraits by Holbein—his drawing of Sir Thomas More and His Family and his so-called ‘Whitehall portrait’ of Tudor monarchs—reveal contrasting approaches. Holbein’s drawing of More’s family was a study for a painting that was later destroyed. The figures are hierarchically posed, with More given a place of prominence in the centre as family patriarch. However, Holbein has also managed to capture an air of informality by using a domestic setting and showing some members of More’s family interacting or engaged in reading. Sketches of the work
reveal that Holbein originally conceived of the portrait as displaying the family’s devotion, with Lady More kneeling and others reading the Bible. The removal of these details in the final version endowed the work with a more secular feel and reinforced the focus on the family itself, rather than on the theme of piety. Despite the formality of the poses there is some sense here of a lived family scene in which the personal relationships among the family members are evoked visually. This is especially important as More’s family includes his second wife, as
well as both offspring, an adopted daughter, and a daughter-in-law. It is therefore a scene of a large, extended family rather than a closed nuclear family group. The kind of extended family and the relationships represented in this portrait reveal the first glimmerings of an interactive informality that was to become a common characteristic of later family portraits.
By contrast, Holbein’s Whitehall portrait is a much more deliberately formal work. Like the painting of the More family, the original version was destroyed in a fire, but copies remain. This work was commissioned by Henry VIII for Whitehall Palace in 1537, shortly after his son Edward was born. The mural represents Henry VIII and
his father Henry VII on the left side of a plinth inscribed with a homage to the Tudor dynasty. On the right side is Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry VII and mother to Henry VIII, and Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife and the only one to bear him a son. This hierarchic painting therefore serves a dynastic purpose—to glorify the House of Tudor and to hint at the continuation of the line through the representation of two generations of the Tudors. The men standing on the dominant left side are arranged according to their seniority, with Henry VII having the most prominent place at the highest point of the composition.
Both the interpersonal and dynastic aspects of family portraiture have been remarkably tenacious. Whether the family portrait stresses the private aspects of family relationships or the arguably more public representation of lineage and family hierarchy, representations of the family give clues to what was significant about family life in a particular age and country. The importance of family hierarchy, with the father visually representing the dominant patriarch, remained prevalent in European portraiture until the nineteenth century. However, even
while hierarchical formal family portraits persisted, much portraiture from the seventeenth century onwards also expressed something about the relationships among family members. In the Low Countries in the seventeenth century and in Britain in the eighteenth century, family groups were frequently depicted interacting with each other in an informal way. Drinking tea or playing music were visual methods frequently used to unify a diverse group of people and to represent them in harmony with each other. Flemish portraitists of the seventeenth century, such as Rubens and Jordaens, employed these techniques in portraits of their own families. In Jordaens’s family portrait, the element of formal posing and the elaborate garden setting indicate his status and worldly success, but these are countered by the implication that the family are preparing to make music and sing together—musical harmony was a metaphor for family love and solidarity. Such apparently informal and personal portraits can have formal and public functions.
Jordaens’s portrait was produced for the benefit of his own family and social circle, but it also was a demonstration of his skill as an artist and a possible means of advertising that skill.
Another public purpose for the representation of family informality can be seen in eighteenth-century Britain, when ‘conversation pieces’ (informal group portraits) represented members of the aristocracy or gentry who were keen to project an image of family harmony at a time when many families were experiencing dynastic and financial problems.
3 The trope of family interaction could thus be seen as a public way of expressing the continuation of a blood line. Furthermore, seemingly informal portraits were often arranged as hierarchically as Holbein’s Whitehall portrait. A typical example of nineteenth-century American portraiture shows a family scene set in a simple bourgeois interior, with lively children playing games with each other. Nevertheless, the father has a position of prominence as both the tallest person in the work and the one positioned first, when looking at the painting from
left to right.
The competing, but coexistent, signs of family hierarchy and interaction remained strong in portraiture throughout the nineteenth century. From the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries it is possible to detect a greater focus on the psychological, as well as social, dimensions of family life in portraiture. Degas’s The Bellelli Family is an extreme but useful example of a portrait that represents a family in crisis. This portrait could be placed in the tradition of conversation pieces, with family members interacting in a domestic interior. However,
the odd arrangement of figures, with the father spatially separated from his children and the mother standing in the usual position of hierarchy assigned to the patriarch of the family, gives this work an unstable and uncomfortable resonance. At the time Degas painted this portrait the Bellelli marriage was strained, and the tensions were affecting the family relationships. Degas, who lodged with the family at the time, attempted to tackle this tension visually rather than subsuming it beneath the artistic conventions of formality and hierarchy. Although most commissioned family portraiture projects a positive expression of family relationships, artists could be challenged by the problem of showing a group that did not necessarily fulfil the contemporary ideals of family life.
Family portraits do not always show a large number of family members. Sometimes specific relationships are singled out for artistic attention. This is especially the case in portraits that represent husbands and wives, and here a distinct tradition can also be identified. Before the nineteenth century it was common for patrons to commission companion marital portraits or portraits of married couples that visually separated the husband and wife. This unusual work is set in a diptych format more frequently associated with altarpieces than portraits, and the two noble sitters are presented in a formal profile pose reminiscent of Roman coins. What unifies them is the landscape background that cuts across both portraits, and the cognate processional images on the reverse of the portrait panels. These images represent Montefeltro and Sforza involved in an ancient Roman triumphal procession, riding in carts containing Latin inscriptions that link the sitters with the cardinal and theological virtues. This portrait therefore probes the moral qualities of the sitters within the framework of their official marital association. What it does not do is to explore their personal relationship.
This formal model of marital portraiture prevailed for more than 300 years. Artists typically represented each member of the married couple separately, with the two portraits unified visually or thematically. The use of paired portraits can be traced back to medieval tomb sculpture, where effigies of both husband and wife would flank the family tombs.
Theoretically, both husband and wife were given equal treatment, but the emphasis in the portrait was on their virtues as individuals, or as a pair, rather than their relationship with each other. Such paired portraits
were conceived to be hung facing each other—for example, on either side of a mantelpiece—and artists often used the complementary gestures, accoutrements, or background to take account of the setting for which the portraits were ultimately intended. It has been suggested that, by the seventeenth century, these formal qualities of
marriage portraits were softened by a new emphasis on the companionate nature of marriage.4 Certainly portraits of married couples became less formal, and by the eighteenth century portraits of married couples were more often conceived as visually unified compositions rather than as paired works. However, these are conventions of representation rather than a reflection of behaviour. It is important to understand that portraits mediated social expectation and lived experience, and thus the images of marriage that they projected may be related as much to the
way people wished to see themselves as to changes in the behaviour or feelings of married couples.
A similar change in representation can be traced in portraits of parents or grandparents with their children. Given the high death rate among children in Europe in the medieval and early modern period, children were considered a precious but fragile part of family life. Early portraits of parents with their progeny tend to stress the importance of children in carrying on the family line, and therefore the dynastic nature of the parent–child relationship is in the forefront. By the seventeenth century the dynastic emphasis remained, but portraits of parents and children became less formal and concentrated more frequently on social or personal connections between different generations. While continuing to allude to the continuation of a family line, portraits of fathers and sons, for example, could emphasize the son’s role in taking on the career of the parent. This frequently applied to high-born families with a military tradition.
What became even more common in portraiture by the end of the eighteenth century was an informal interaction between parents and their children that evoked the idea of a strong personal bond. Portraits of children playing with toys and dolls, teasing their parents, or misbehaving presented a more sentimental side of family life, as can be seen in the English artist William Hoare’s portrait of Christopher Anstey and his daughter. The spirited play of Anstey’s daughter pulls away from the dynastic and hierarchical conventions of the family portraiture
of the previous century. It has been argued that this kind of portraiture reflected changes in the real behaviour and relationships of families, parents, and children.5 However, there have been a number of justifiable criticisms of this reading of portraiture as a transparent reflection of family interaction. Hoare’s portrait of Anstey, for example, might give a flavour of a warm relationship with his daughter, but the informality of a portrait like this may also have been a means of drawing attention to the work at a public exhibition, or it may relate to a contemporary belief, inspired by the theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the importance of childhood. Portraits have thus contributed to a changing public image of family life, affecting the way families were represented, discussed, and understood, rather than reflecting a change in the lived experience of husbands and wives, parents, and children.
Civic and institutional portraits Just as families may have felt the need to express their personal, dynastic,
and hierarchical relationships through portraiture, so various public organizations also have commissioned portraits of groups, as well as individuals. Civic societies such as guilds, militia groups, confraternities,
and charities have commissioned often quite imaginative portraits representing large numbers of their membership. These civic group portraits are significant in a number of ways. First of all they needed to express something about the common identity of the group, perhaps through costume, insignia, pose, or gender. Secondly, although guilds and other civic groups had hierarchical structures, artists who produced civic group portraits had to be sensitive to an ideology of equality and solidarity voiced in the rhetoric of some civic groups. Unlike family
portraiture, many civic group portraits express democratic rather than hierarchic relationships. Thirdly, individual members of such group portraits had to be distinguishable by their carefully crafted likenesses.
Thus, even though a group ethos is being represented, the individuality of each group member must also be apparent. Finally, as with family portraits, artists who produced civic or institutional portraits had to find ways of knitting a collective of individuals into a visually and psychologically coherent group.
The idea that a civic organization could or should commission portraits can be traced back to the late fifteenth century, when Venetian confraternities commissioned works that included portraits of individual members. Confraternities were groups of lay people who dedicated themselves to a particular saint. These organizations often became wealthy due to the income from both subscriptions and endowments, and they competed with each other to demonstrate the greatest homage to their patron saint. The larger confraternities built elaborate meeting houses and commissioned the best local artists to decorate them. They also participated in public spectacles in honour of their saint. Because of the public visibility of confraternities, they became a source of civic pride as well as religious piety. Portraiture became one of the many ways in which a confraternity could demonstrate its importance. However, works such as Gentile Bellini’s Procession in Piazza San Marco are set in a processional, ritualistic context, and the individual members of the group become part of a ceremonial event. The portrait aspects of the
work are thereby overwhelmed by the sense of ceremony and occasion.
Because of the close rivalry among confraternities, the desire to project a corporate image was strong within these institutions, and that image was felt to reside in both the group ethos and the significance of individual members. The inclusion of portraits in ceremonial compositions therefore served both purposes.
Such group portraits were thus especially common in cities with a strong sense of civic responsibility and enough local wealth and power to encourage rivalry among competing organizations. It is thus no surprise that the heyday of the civic group portrait was the seventeenth century, during which time the Low Countries led the way in promoting this sub-genre.7Not only were there militia groups in every major city but also charitable organizations with a prominent local profile.
The militia groups were such avid patrons of portraiture that their portraits were given a separate nomenclature, the doelenstuk. These portraits were commissioned from many of the major Flemish artists of the seventeenth century, including Hals and Rembrandt. Hals was particularly adept at meeting the complex requirements of civic portraiture: his works demonstrate a group ethos through costume, props, and unifying gesture, but they also give equal attention to each member of the group and properly distinguish the likenesses of individuals. Hals’s
group portraits can be quite formally arranged, but he undermined this formality by including interaction among the members.
The problems of balancing group solidarity, equality, and individuality were confronted more dramatically by Rembrandt in his famous The Night Watch (1642). Originally entitled The Company of Francis Banning Cocq Readying to March, this painting shows members of Amsterdam’s civic guards preparing for parade. Unlike Hals’s more orderly portraits, The Night Watch is a dramatic composition that focuses on the action itself rather than on the likenesses of individuals, although these are rendered effectively. Here a sense of hierarchy replaces the illusion of equality apparent in Hals’s work, as members of the guard are given varying degrees of prominence. In fact each sitter contributed a different amount to the cost of the group painting, depending on how prominently he was represented. The distinctions between Hals’s and Rembrandt’s works show the two extremes of civic group portraiture. On the one hand the portrait can be formal, with careful attention to each member of the group; on the other the dramatic qualities of the composition can take precedence, and the artist can manipulate his or her subjects as if they are figures on a stage.
Similar qualities are also present in family portraits, but the purposes behind the commissioning of the portraits, and the ways the relationships are conceived and understood, give a somewhat different meaning to the militia portraits.
A clear distinction between family and civic group portraits lies in the gender and age balance and divisions of each kind of work. Family portraits frequently include both children and adults, both men and women. Institutional portraits are more often representative of individ-uals born roughly in the same generation and who are of the same
gender. Men certainly dominate civic group portraits, largely because of their traditionally prominent role in public organizations. However, in the seventeenth century there were also a significant number of group portraits representing women, especially those who had been involved in charities, hospitals, or other philanthropic activities. Such portraits are similar to the doelenstuk genre in that they show a collection of individuals, sharing common dress or attributes and given equal visual prominence. However, it is also interesting to look at the generational aspects of such portraiture. Militia portraits usually represent men in the prime of their life, between 20 and 40 years old. Group portraits of women who have public responsibilities tend to concentrate on the
elderly, as those without immediate family responsibilities could devote themselves to such occupations.
The recurring tropes of solidarity, equality, and individuality characteristic of seventeenth-century civic portraits can also be seen in different kinds of institutional group portraiture to the present day.
These qualities were cleverly and ironically expressed in a twenty-firstcentury portrait by Stuart Pearson Wright showing Six Presidents of the British Academy, which won the BP Portrait Award at the London National Portrait Gallery in 2001. Like the seventeenth-century militia, the British Academy is an elite organization, but it is one that stresses academic rather than civic or martial accomplishments. Largely male dominated, the British Academy has had a number of distinguished presidents whose portraits Wright painted separately and then
brought together in his fascinating portrait. The issues of solidarity, equality, and individuality that underlay seventeenth-century civic portraiture are translated here into a twenty-first-century context. Solidarity is shown through the identical dark suits worn by all except Sir Kenneth Dover on the far right, who characteristically sports a tattered jumper. Anonymous suits constitute the uniform of this group. Equality is conveyed by the balanced attention given to each figure; Wright has even tilted the perspective of the table so that each one is equidistant from the picture plane. Individuality is achieved in the careful delineation of facial expression and configuration. The stark setting of the room is given geographical fixity by the view of the London Eye.
Ferris wheel through the back window. The serious expressions of the sitters are challenged by the incongruous presence of a dead chicken—possibly a modern-day memento mori—on the tea table. The fact that the group of presidents is drinking tea may allude to the prominence of tea drinking as a unifying activity in family conversation pieces of the past, but here the ritual deliberation of the tea drinking serves to undermine,
rather than enhance, the informal nature of this interaction. The presidents of the British Academy are all posing, just as Hals’s militia were, but unlike Hals, Wright makes no attempt to create an interaction among the sitters, who all appear rather glumly uncomfortable in this group composition.
Civic and institutional portraiture thus consists of a set of visual and/or psychological relationships among the sitters that can express something about both group identity and individuality. Such portraits give artists the problem of balancing the needs of an organization with those of each of the individuals within it.
Artist groups. Group Portraiture
Family and institutional portraits comprise the vast majority of group portraiture, but another notable type of group portraiture emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: portraits of groups of artists. Previously rare, such works eventually become crucial signals for changes in the self-image of the artist. How artists decided to represent both their fellow practitioners and the nature of their group identity is not only important to the history of portraiture but also reveals a great deal about the growing professionalization of the art world and changing self-perceptions of the artist.
Johann Zoffany’s portrait of the first Academicians at the English Royal Academy of 1771–2 is an early example of this type of group portraiture. Zoffany’s work represents all of the male members of the recently formed Royal Academy. The group of artists is shown in the life class, which was the foundation of artistic learning at the Royal Academy schools. The interactions among the different artists, and their visible expressions of interest, curiosity, engagement, or distraction enliven the scene. At first glance Zoffany appears to have given relatively equal prominence to each of the sitters, but a closer study reveals the kinds of hierarchies common in family portraits. The major officers of the Academy, such as the President Joshua Reynolds and the Professor of Anatomy William Hunter, stand in the centre background—Reynolds with his ear trumpet and Hunter stroking his chin
and considering the position of the life model. By contrast, some of the lesser-known Academicians are tucked away in the far corners. The two female members, Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser, would have been excluded from life drawing classes, so they are represented through portraits on the back wall. At a period in British history when
artists for the first time had their own professional academy, it was important for them to justify the authority of their new institution. The presence of both antique casts and the life models in this portrait represent
the ideals of the Academy schools. Such group portraits of artists have been creatively compared to the so-called sacra conversazione—a late fifteenth-century innovation showing the Madonna and Child surrounded by saints who appear to be interacting.8 Such a comparison gives a hint of the sense of higher purpose behind the production of
group portraits of artists.
The combination of informality, institutional pride, and artistic idealism that underlay Zoffany’s portrait was not the only model for group portraits of artists. By the late nineteenth century artists were beginning to develop different sorts of collective identities outside the official institutional structures. The notion of the avant-garde signalled artistic rebellion, but much of what was taken to be avant-garde in the last decades of the nineteenth century grew from the interactions of groups of artists rather than from single individuals. The new groupings of artists found different ways of asserting their artistic identity, using the agency of art dealers, the publication of manifestos, and the production of portraits expressing their group ideals.
Among the most famous of these group portraits is Henri Fantin-Latour’s Studio in the Batignolles. This is a much more formal portrait than Zoffany’s Royal Academicians, as the interaction among the sitters appears as sombre as the dark clothes they all wear. To signal that this is a portrait about artists, Fantin-Latour has represented the
central figure Édouard Manet painting while others cluster around him. Among this group are Renoir and Monet, as well as the novelist Émile Zola. This circle of artists includes some, such as Manet himself, who had been trained in the official Paris art school, the École des Beaux-Arts, but this group was also known for its daring experimentation with both style and subject matter, and some members of the group would later appear together at the ‘Impressionist’ exhibitions. This is therefore a portrait of men who saw themselves in the vanguard of
artistic experimentation. Although we see no evidence of the style or methods advocated by this group, their solidarity suggests a proclamation of collective identity based on their avant-garde ideals.
The Impressionists and their circle were perhaps responsible for shifting the emphasis of artist group portraits away from an institutional ethos and towards a goal of idealism cemented by private friendships. The deliberate formality of Fantin-Latour’s portrait is complemented by a much more casually composed group portrait
painted by Bazille in the same year. Entitled The Studio in the rue La Condamine, this unusual work represents Bazille’s friends congregating in his studio. At first glance the distance of the figures and the excess of empty space seem to make this an inappropriate composition for a portrait, and the work has the feel of a genre scene. However, each of the figures in the painting has been identified—they include Manet, Monet, Zola, Renoir, and others—some of whom had also been included in Fantin-Latour’s portrait. Rather than posing formally, each
person is engaged in activity or conversation, and the work exudes an air of cheerful bustle and creative energy. Bazille himself is there in the background, painting at his easel. His figure was added by Manet, which gives the work an even greater sense of communal exchange.
This is less of an artistic manifesto and more of a declaration of artistic friendship and common purpose. Such close associations between artists were the impetus for much avant-garde activity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and it is perhaps not surprising that portraiture became a method by which artists could declare their solidarity and sense of purpose.
Group portraits of artists could also take the form of a kind of visual manifesto, especially when they were used for stylistic experimentation. This was commonly practised by avant-garde groups in the early twentieth century. Max Ernst’s Au Rendez-vous des amis thus seems to be more about the rebellious stance of an artist associated with the iconoclastic Dada movement than a declaration of artistic friendship or idealism, although the group he chose to represent was a particularly close-knit one. Ernst played with the style and the subject of this work,
as well as experimenting with the genre of portraiture itself, by labelling each of the individuals included and painting the key identifying the sitters. What pretends to be a document thus becomes an ironic representation
of a group of artists and writers who challenged the norms of bourgeois society.
Portraits of artist groups could thus serve diverse purposes. They could signal the professional standing of artists. They could reflect artistic friendships. They could be devised as visual manifestos or as public
declarations of avant-garde intentions. Group portraits exemplify both visual and psychological relationships, and despite conventionality or formality, they can be more varied in composition, approach, and effect than portraits of single individuals.