Portraiture and Modernism
Portraiture and Modernism
From the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, certain continuities characterize the history of portraiture in western Europe and America. Portraits were expected to provide both likeness and some kind of revelation of the sitter’s character, status, or position, although how they did so could vary greatly. Although such expectations were not abandoned, some fundamental changes in the conception and appearance of portraiture can be seen in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
‘Modernism’ is the name usually given to the cultural and aesthetic responses to the period of technological modernization that accompanied the Industrial Revolution. These changes appeared in different countries gradually over a long period of time, with Britain showing the impact as early as the late eighteenth century, while Italy, for example, did not undergo a comparable experience of modernization until nearly a hundred years later. In terms of portraiture, modernism brought with it some catalysts for change. The first of these was the invention of photography,
which offered both a challenge and an opportunity for portraitists. A second related factor was the rejection of mimesis that characterized many art movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Artists who saw themselves as part of the avantgarde declared their rejection of portraiture’s associations with the epresentational traditions of the past. Thirdly, the major social changes that accompanied modernization also inspired new ways of seeing the roles of individuals in society, and this too had an impact on the way artists used portraiture to represent the people in their world.
It is a common critical trope to reject the importance of portraiture to modernist art.3 At first glance portraits appear to have little place in the evolution of modernism, as their mimetic associations could not easily be reconciled with the creative freedom assigned to the avantgarde.
The modernist ethos of universality and abstraction has been said to be alien to the specificity of the portrait. A disparagement of portraiture was entrenched in much modernist critical theory. For example, the English artist and writer Clive Bell coined the phrase ‘aesthetic emotion’, which he defined as a feeling that was stimulated by
what he called ‘significant form’. Significant form was the basis of Bell’s Detail of 125 formalist theory, and he saw it as the defining characteristic of art.
Although he did not reject representational art entirely, subject matter was irrelevant to him. Because portraiture was felt to be dominated by the likeness of the subject rather than purely formal qualities, Bell conceived
of portraits as alien to his definition of ‘significant form.
Although several artists in Bell’s circle painted portraits, his rejection of portraiture as too intrinsically mimetic for modernism was shared by other early twentieth-century artists, such as the Russian Vassily Kandinsky, who increasingly adhered to an ethos of total abstraction, or ‘non-objectivity’. Portraits, which had been low down the academic hierarchies in the early modern period because of their putative lack of inventiveness and idealization, were equally low in the hierarchies of modernism, but this time because of their association with likeness.
Even those modernist artists who produced many portraits could be somewhat coy in their references to portraiture. For example, Picasso’s sporadic and inconsistent use of the term ‘portrait’ was belied by a massive exhibition of his portraiture held in 1996, which comprised every remotely identifiable image he painted of all his various lovers.
Despite attempts by both artists and critics to place portraits outside the mainstream of modernism, portraiture played a fundamental part in rethinking the kinds of issues surrounding representation and artistic interpretation that preoccupied artists of the avant-garde. Although few modernist artists were exclusively portraitists in the conventional sense, most of them turned to portraiture at some point in their careers.
The place of portraiture in the twentieth century is complicated by its diversity: while some artists of the avant-garde attempted totally abstract ‘portraits’ (see below), others continued a tradition of institutional
and private portrait commissions. This resulted in the extremes either of stylistically experimental works or of portraits that were firmly tied to existing conventions of representation, with many examples somewhere in the middle. The plurality of functions and stylistic qualities apparent in portraits of this period makes it worth addressing separately the modernist dimension to portraiture.
Portraiture and photography
Photography’s origins can be traced back to optical devices, such as the camera obscura, that were employed as artistic aids from the seventeenth century. The invention of photography as we know it is usually dated to the 1820s, when Henry Fox Talbot in England and Joseph-Nicéphore Niepce and Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in France
simultaneously developed methods of mechanically reproducing the image of an inanimate object. The invention of photography was of major significance for the development of portraiture. Although early photography was used for many different purposes, portraiture quickly became one of the most popular practices of professional photographers.
There are a number of reasons for this, but one of the most important was that photography appeared to provide a foolproof means of conveying likeness. The conception that a photograph reveals truth initially seemed to offer the model of mimesis required for portraiture.
However, from an early stage portrait photographers adopted poses and conventions from painting, while artists used photography for a variety of purposes, many of which offered them new creative approaches to portraiture. Although in its early years photography threatened to replace painted portraiture, new methods of producing likenesses; it served to liberate painters from the goal of mimesis; and it offered a new tool for portrait painters as part
of their working processes. A consideration of each of these points will help explain how photography both drew upon and challenged the centuries-old conventions of portraiture.
Once photography had been invented, it was soon adopted for portraits.
Early professional photographers quickly realized that they could have a lucrative trade in setting up portrait studios providing affordable likenesses that could be produced relatively quickly, with a minimum of fuss. Portraits no longer required the inconvenience of many sittings, and the final product could be presented to the sitter within a reasonable time. The reduction of both time and, eventually, cost was attractive for many sitters who might never have considered having their portraits painted but were less reluctant to have themselves photographed. The early photograph portrait quickly developed a new category of its own—the so-called carte-de-visite . These were calling cards which included not just the name and address of the subject but their
photograph as well.6 The carte-de-visite became the accepted means of social exchange among the increasingly prevalent bourgeoisie in midnineteenth-century western Europe and America. The format also provided a portable image that could be kept in pockets, drawers, or albums as mementos of friends or loved ones: thus photographs soon
superseded the art of miniature painting.
The technical limitations and long exposure time of early photography meant that sitters had to remain stationary sometimes for several minutes, and this led to a certain stiltedness in the posing. However, even once these technical problems were overcome, photographs appeared no more spontaneous than painted portraits, and indeed often seemed to be governed by the same conventions. In early photographs sitters adopt neutral expressions, stand, or sit stiffly, and occupy anonymous spaces, which include such artificial elements as columns and curtains—the established props of portraiture. The ubiquity of portrait photographs did not prevent sitters from wanting an image of themselves that had been touched up, and there appears to have been a common expectation that portrait photographs should serve the same kind of purpose as painted portraits. The mimetic potential of early
portrait photography was thus undermined by the prevalence of the traditions of painting and the expectations of the sitters.
Although the visual qualities of early portrait photography may have been drawn from painted portraiture, the potential of early photographs to be reproduced and widely circulated meant that they could function more like prints than paintings. For example, portrait photographs of famous actors, musicians, and writers were distributed in the form of cartes-de-visite, or as part of albums, in magazines, or as individually sold cards. Theatre managers employed photography as a means of promoting their most popular actors, and the practice of portrait photography helped fuel nineteenth-century celebrity cults, for example of actors such as Sarah Bernhardt in France or Henry Irving in England.
So, in its own right photography had a decisive impact on the history of portraiture. However, the popularity of portrait photography also inspired changes in the practice of portraiture in other media, such as painting, and these changes were no less far-reaching than the innovations of photography itself. Although there were some gloomy
predictions about the death of painting after photography’s invention, it did not take artists long to try to find different approaches to portraiture that would distinguish their art from that of the photographer.
Although many portraits still retained the customary conventions, artists were also self-consciously experimental, making portraits a starting point for a work that used space, props, and gesture in new ways.
Another way that photography contributed to an alteration in the conventions of portraiture was through its employment by painters as part of their working methods. Before the invention of photography painters often relied on long sittings in their studio; subsequently a painted portrait could be produced wholly or partly from a photograph rather than from a sitting. For those sitters who still wanted their portraits painted, photography offered a way to liberate their time while providing the photographer with a means of studying their faces
without having them there. Photography also offered a new tool for self-portraiture, as it enabled artists, if they wished, to dispense with the mirror. Among the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century artists who had themselves photographed for self-portraits were Munch, Kirchner, Schiele, and the German society portraitist Franz
As John Gage has shown, the irony about the invention of photography was that it, like portraiture, was devalued as a mechanical taking of likenesses, rather than praised as a significant creative tool for the artist.8 The idea that the camera could be objective implied that the person operating it was a mere technician—a label that had also been associated with the mimetic nature of painted portraiture. However, photography itself was not used mechanistically, but was employed for creative purposes. Photography did not make portraiture obsolete, but
expanded its potential.
Portraiture and modernist aesthetics
Although officially commissioned and conventionally posed portrait painting continued to flourish, by the end of the nineteenth century some portraitists were attempting to offer something different to their patrons and clients. Often the conventional coexisted with the experimental.
This can be seen in the work of the late nineteenth-century fashionable portraitists such as Giovanni Boldini in Italy, France, and England, Jacques-Émile Blanche in France and John Singer Sargent in England and America. These portraitists flattered their sitters through exaggerated attention to their beauty, the lavishness of their garments, or the elegance of the settings. They also alluded to the status, wealth, or profession of their sitters in a way fully commensurate with portraiture’s traditional functions. Sargent’s portrait of the daughters of Edward
Darley Boit  achieves some of these effects, and it draws authority from Sargent’s use of murky colour tones and painterly brushwork reminiscent of old masters such as Velázquez and Hals. Sargent thus places his portrait firmly within the tradition of seventeenth-century portrait painting—albeit from two different national tendencies.
However, Sargent’s brushwork here relates not only to the works of seventeenth-century masters but also to the stylistic character of contemporary Impressionist painting. Sargent’s technique blurs his sitters’ features much more forcefully than, for example, Hals had done.
Sargent also experimented here with the disposition of space. He used such tactics as adopting a view from the distance, as with the Boit children, or from above, or arranging groups of figures obliquely or in apparently haphazard relation to each other. Portraits such as Sargent’s drew on both the past and the present in a way that was commercially successful and artistically complex.
These ‘society’ portraits remained a sufficient compromise for many elite sitters until the Second World War. However, some artists stripped away references to status, wealth, and beauty that existed in the society
portraits of Sargent and his contemporaries and focused instead on the formal properties of their portraits. One who did this successfully was the Austrian painter at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, Gustav Klimt, whose portraits were both flattering likenesses of aristocratic beauties and wild experiments with flat decorative areas of costume. Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was one of several that he painted of wealthy members of the Viennese Jewish community. The care with which he has delineated Bloch-Bauer’s features gives a dimensionality that contrasts strikingly with the flat pattern of her garment. The pattern here recalls medieval mosaics, such as that of Justinian and Theodora that Klimt had seen on a trip to Ravenna. The portrait thus evinces a representational tension: it addresses likeness, but contains elements that have more
associations with the artist’s technical interests than with the sitter’s status or character.
This kind of tension is apparent in much avant-garde portraiture— despite a critical tendency to highlight modernism’s complete break with tradition. Among the few early twentieth-century portraits discussed in standard histories of modernism are Picasso’s representation of Gertrude Stein and Matisse’s portrayal of his wife, Amélie, with a green line painted down her nose. These works are often presented in terms of their contribution to the development of avantgarde art movements, and for their disruption of traditional ideas of form and colour. Their status as portraits can be ignored or seen as secondary to their stylistic experimentation. However, both works allude to, as well as disrupt, the representational conventions of portraiture.
Picasso depicted Stein in a way that captured her distinctive features, overlaying them with the characteristics of Iberian sculpture that Picasso had discovered while on holiday in Gosol, Spain, during 1906.
Stein herself was known for her non-representational literary portraiture which later drew on Cubism for its fragmented format. Matisse’s portrait of his wife is also a recognizable likeness, following a conventional portrait format—a part-profile bust, with the face half in light and half in shadow. But instead of using nuances of colour to create an effect of dimensionality in the face, Matisse chose a sickly green that rather violently bisects Amélie’s nose. The shock of Matisse’s work to contemporary audiences was this apparently cavalier treatment of a genre known for its mimetic qualities.
Given that the notion of portraiture as likeness rests on this mimesis, portraiture as a genre would seem to resist the pull of modernist abstraction towards a non-mimetic and even non-objective mode of representation. However, there are a number of modernist ‘portraits’ which are partially, or fully, abstracted, or totally non-representational.
This tendency began to develop in the late nineteenth century, when Whistler categorized his portraits in terms of their colour tones, rather than the name of the sitter. His famous portrait of his mother was originally entitled Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother. Whistler portrayed a personal subject, but underplayed the sentimental qualities of the work in favour of the formal ones. In his portraits, as in his landscapes, he used titles that had musical associations— harmonies, nocturnes, arrangements—suggesting the prevalence of tone or mood over subject matter.
Whereas Whistler used musical analogy as a strategy for undermining the mimetic qualities of his portraits, others attempted to erase these aspects in a different way by using patterns and treating their sitters as ‘motifs’ rather than as individuals. This is particularly evident with artists who painted a series representing the same sitter. Matisse’s busts of Jeannette, Giacometti’s portraits of Annette or Yanaïhara, and Modigliani’s various female models are repetitions of the physical form of their subjects rather than explorations of individual identity. Giacometti subjected his handful of sitters to endless sessions while he worked and reworked his representations. Paradoxically, instead of intensifying the verisimilitude of his portraits, Giacometti’s close studies give his works a disturbing, alien quality that makes the sitter’s character and likeness elusive. Nevertheless such stylistic posturing does not disguise the fact that these are portraits of actual people.
In each case the tensions between stylistic experiment and revelation of the individual cannot be denied. The descriptive and referential qualities of twentieth-century portraiture subsume even the most radical stylistic departures within portraiture’s traditional revelatory, celebratory, and mimetic traditions.
Abstract and non-representational portraits Whistler’s and Giacometti’s portraits, like those of Matisse and Picasso, still have a representational function in that they are recognizable likenesses of the individuals they depict. However, a number of avantgarde artists produced portraits that did not convey a likeness of their sitter in the usual sense. Among these are the portraits of and by the New Zealand artist Frances Hodgkins, who employed a collection of objects, such as mirrors and flowers, to evoke her subjectivity.
Hodgkins’s works could be labelled still lifes, but she chose to call them ‘self-portraits’ and used the still-life elements as a means of referring to her own personality, obsessions, and interests.10 A different approach to
non-representational portraiture was taken by the American artist Charles Demuth, whose ‘poster portraits’ include his homage to the poet William Carlos Williams, I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold. Here Demuth conveys the impression of an urban street as seen through the imagery of Williams’s poem, The Great Figure. Although containing abstract components, Demuth’s work also depicts recognizable elements, such as the number 5 itself.
The radical simplifications in some modernist portraits bear a conceptual relationship with the methods of aricature. The German artist Gabriele Münter reduced the features of her sitters to a schematic series of lines and colours, in a manner that could be both evocative and amusing . Although her work drew on the inspiration of French Impressionism and post-Impressionism, her combination of simplified portraiture and humorous portrayal of character gives her work a relationship with caricatural portraits in popular German comic magazines such as Simplicissimus.To Münter, these simplified forms also bore aesthetic affinities with the folk art and children’s art that she and her lover Kandinsky collected. In the later decades of the twentieth century, the French artist Jean Dubuffet used caricatural forms in his portraits much more deliberately. But in Dubuffet’s portraits—unlike those of caricaturists— the likeness seems less important to him than the association with a raw, or radically simplified, form of representation.
It is notable that although many modernist portraits are nonrepresentational in that they do not convey a likeness, very few of them are purely ‘non-objective’, that is, constructions of pure line and colour without any representational qualities. However, there are examples.
One of the few justifications for approaching portraiture in this way came from the early twentieth-century American artist Katherine Dreier, who described her abstract portrait of Marcel Duchamp as follows.
Dreier suggests that mimetic representation is an imperfect way of conveying the essence of a person; instead portraitists should use form and colour as a means to evoke, rather than describe, the sitter’s qualities.
However, as with all ‘non-objective’ art, the relationship between the artist’s representation and the viewer’s perception is often a tenuous one, and such portraiture may fail to convey anything about the subject to someone who does not actually know them.
Portrait tradition and the avant-garde
As I have shown, modernist portraiture—even by artists with avantgarde affiliations—did not always privilege stylistic experimentation. There were also many twentieth-century portraits that were conceived in mimetic terms and included the sort of props, expressions, and gestures, as well as signs of status and profession, that had been
common in portraiture from the fifteenth century onwards. This tendency in portraiture has sometimes been related to an anti-modernist conventionalism. Certainly, one of the most stylistically restrained eras in twentieth-century art—the interwar period—was dominated by portraiture. It was during this time, for example, that Otto Dix selfconsciously adopted a realist visual rhetoric that recalled such old masters as Lucas Cranach and Hans Holbein, and included clues to his sitter’s status and character, as in his portraits of the journalist Sylvia von Harden with her monocle and spritzer, and the photographer Hugo Erfurth sharing a canvas with his Alsatian dog. Other skilled portraitists, such as Giorgio de Chirico and Max Beckmann, were vehemently opposed to modernist tendencies in art.
Although portraits by artists such as Dix may not be as stylistically radical as those of other avant-garde artists, they did challenge traditions of portraiture in other ways. For example, some twentieth-century portraitists stressed the ugliness or physical imperfections of their sitter in an exaggerated manner that was uncommon in the past. Schiele extended his studies of his emaciated and attenuated body to his face, which he depicted scowling, grinning, and screaming. The distortions of expression here have resonances with the work of
Rembrandt or Schiele’s fellow Austrian, the eighteenth-century sculptor Messerschmidt, but Schiele’s prolific reproduction of variations on the ‘ugly’ face and body suggests a different degree of obsession. Both Stanley Spencer and Lucian Freud borrowed Schiele’s method of representing the body with purple veins and
swollen genitals, and they added to this the wrinkles of age and the sagging, pendulous swells of fat that are all-too common but do not represent the side of humanity that most sitters wished to see. Portraiture has always included sitters who have physical imperfections. What is different in these works is the excessive emphasis on the corporeality of the human body—on muscles, veins, and fat.
In the work of the Irish artist Francis Bacon, physical distortion in portraiture became a disturbing reference to the negative sides of the human condition. Bacon repeatedly represented his close friends George Dyer and Isabel Rawsthorne with bulbous noses, hooded eyes, crooked heads, and monster mouths. In such works he was not only revealing the evanescence of the corporeal self but was using his portraits to convey visually the violence of human suffering and unhappiness. Bacon engaged with the history of portraiture from early in his career, when he copied Velázquez’ portrait of Pope Innocent X but replaced the sombre countenance of the sitter with a screaming mask. Bacon used portraiture to draw attention to the very things about human existence that portraiture of the past did not so readily show.
From these examples, it becomes clear that modernist portraiture both draws from tradition and contests it; it both contributes to the modernist paradigm and has characteristics which cannot be confined to the development of modernism alone.