Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun Portrait of Marie-Antoinette, 1778–9 The patronage of Queen Marie-Antoinette was both a
support and an obstacle to the career of Vigée-Lebrun. During the 1770s and 1780s she produced around 30
portraits of the queen and was in heavy demand among the French aristocracy even though she was a woman.
However, when Marie-Antoinette was disgraced and executed in 1789, Vigée-Lebrun’s former associations
with the queen and court led the artist to flee France.
Power and Status of Portraits
Portraits act as signifiers of the status of the individuals they represent. Although it is important not to see portraits as mere reflections of social hierarchies, they can help us understand how specific levels of society
were perceived at different periods of history.
Through the gestures, dress, props, background, labelling, and other facets of a portrait, we are usually given either clear or oblique signals about whether the subject is rich or poor, powerful or subjugated, and whether they can be associated with a particular profession, class, club, or other group of people. Portraits can also affirm or challenge social hierarchies. These signs of power and status have enhanced the functional value of portraits and decisions about their purchase, display, and exhibition.
Although it is somewhat artificial to separate portraits into categories of status and profession, such a taxonomy may help to reveal the motivations behind the commissioning and reception of portraits in different historical periods. A portrait of a ruler gives different signals and has different functions from a portrait of a famous poet or a beloved family servant. In each case the social role, authority, and power of the individual in their own era helped shape the way he or she was represented in the portrait.
Titian Emperor Charles V at Mühlberg, 1548 Titian’s equestrian portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was clearly inspired by the ancient Roman equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, but it also alludes to
the Christian Knight of Dürer’s allegory, Knight, Death and Devil. The latter is a particularly appropriate
reference as the Battle of Mühlberg established Charles’s victory over the Protestants. Titian’s portrait is
thus both a symbolic portrait and a narrative of victory, and it straddles a fine line between portraiture and history
Portraiture and patronage
Who actually commissioned portraits? There is no simple answer to this question, and the varied functions of portraiture discussed in the last chapter point to a myriad of possibilities. Portraits have been commissioned
by individuals and by groups or organizations—nearly always those with wealth and power—to represent themselves or others. The wealthy and powerful have never been the exclusive patrons of portraiture, however. Complaints about portraits of the bourgeoisie, artisans, merchants, and other labouring classes began as early as Lomazzo’s art
treatise of 1584, which lamented the ubiquity of portraiture: Although portraiture has always represented a wide range of classes and professions, monarchs, emperors, popes, presidents, dictators, and members of European court cultures have been the most avid patrons of portraiture. The many portraits that exist of monarchs today—whether
their power is honorary or genuine—attest to the strong tradition of rulers commissioning portraits of themselves. However, artists also sought out individuals who were of a lower class, who had little or no prominent public role, or who had distinguished themselves by their creative ability, intellectual acumen, or talent, rather than their power.
Auguste Rodin (next page) Monument to Balzac, completed in 1898 Rodin was one of the most inventive sculptors of the nineteenth century, but he produced very few works that could be classed as portraits.
Most of his sculpture deals with larger themes or is based on literary sources. This monument to Balzac has the
universal qualities of other free-standing sculpture by Rodin, such as The Thinker and The Burghers of Calais,
but in this case the very specific features of Balzac’s face contribute to the effect of the monument.
Diego Rodrнguez de Silva y Velбzquez Don Juan Calabazas, called Calabacillas, 1640 As court painter to King Philip IV of Spain Velбzquez not only
produced formal portraits of the royal family but was also responsible for painting portraits of court fools and dwarfs. These essential
members of the court provided entertainment for the king and his entourage. Because of the dwarfs’ unique positions at court Velбzquez
was commissioned to paint their portraits. Their physical disabilities and low status allowed him a liberty in depicting them that was not
available to him for portraits of the royal family.
Edgar Degas Place de la Concorde (Vicomte Lepic and His Daughters), 1875 This very unusual portrait was
painted during a period in which Degas was exhibiting with the group that became known as the Impressionists.
However, the work is less a reflection of the ethos of Impressionism than it is of Degas’s own particular
interests. He painted many psychologically penetrating portraits, abandoning conventional portrait poses for
unusual and often modern gestures and postures. He was also fascinated by contemporary urban life; by
setting this family portrait in a Parisian street, he gives it the air of a genre painting.
Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger Elizabeth I (the ‘Ditchley portrait’), c.1592 As she grew older, Elizabeth I
became increasingly concerned with controlling her image and having herself represented as the ageless
Virgin Queen. Later portraits of her, such as this one, are replete with complex symbolism that links her
political power with her virginity. Unlike the strongly detailed portraits by artists such as Holbein favoured by
her father Henry VIII, Elizabeth preferred a mannered and decorative form of portraiture that underplayed likeness in favour of themes of regal authority.
Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli Equestrian statue of Peter I, 1716–44 Rastrelli was part of a family of Italian artists who settled in the court of St Petersburg to work for Peter I. He produced a number of sculpted portraits
of the monarch and his family, but his most famous work was this equestrian monument. Taking nearly three decades to
complete, the monument was cast after Rastrelli died, and erected over fifty years after his death in front of the
Engineers’ Castle in St Petersburg.
Gilbert Stuart George Washington (the ‘Lansdowne portrait’), 1796 Stuart was responsible for creating an image of George Washington that has become one of the most recognized visages in history. Stuart
painted bust-length portraits of the American president in 1794 and 1796, and the second of these became a
model for a series of copies and reproductions of Washington’s head. The frequent repetition of Washington’s image—
including its presence on the dollar bill—has made this face synonymous with American political ideals after the War of
Honoré Daumier Le Salon de 1857, 1857 Although he was also a painter and sculptor, Daumier is best known for his lithography. He produced over 4000 lithographs in his lifetime, many of which were
caricatural portraits. His contribution to the weekly newspaper La Caricature led to his imprisonment when he
represented King Louis-Philippe as Rabelais’s Gargantua; this action also led to the legal repression of
caricatures in France from 1835. After this, Daumier turned to more generic social caricatures such as this one.
Here Daumier uses caricatural exaggeration to mock the vanity of French bourgeois society. The comic figure
appears excessively pleased with the faithful but unprepossessing likeness of himself being shown in the
exhibition. Daumier’s satire points to the prevalence of portraits of such bourgeois subjects at the annual Salon
Johann Zoffany John Cuff and His Assistant, 1772 Zoffany’s portrait of King George III’s optician is in notable contrast to his portraits of the King, Queen
Charlotte, and their children, even though Zoffany’s royal family portraits also have some informal elements. Although these portraits are set in
domestic interiors and show, for example, the royal children donning fancy dress, he was careful to delineate the features of the royal family in a
decorous, flattering way. By contrast, Zoffany subjected Cuff and his assistant to close scrutiny and presented their features in uncompromising
British School John Mellor’s Black Coach Boy, c.1730 This is one of a series of portraits of servants from Erddig House in Wales. These portraits seem to have been commissioned over a period of time to commemorate faithful family servants. The tendency to commission portraits of servants was common in
Britain, but because the subjects of the works were not famous and were quickly forgotten these portraits have tended to be lost or destroyed.
The Erddig collection is a notable exception.
John Singleton Copley Paul Revere, c.1768 Copley’s early career as a portrait painter in Boston led him to rapid success, but as his prosperity increased he was torn between radical friends, such as Paul Revere,
and wealthy loyalists, who offered him substantial patronage. Americans appreciated his virtuosic painting style, his close attention to likeness, and his ability to endow his sitters with character while still flattering
Joshua Reynolds Dr Samuel Johnson, 1772/1778 As President of the English Royal Academy, Reynolds is best known for his Grand Manner portraits of the British aristocracy and gentry, but he also produced a series of more
intimate portrait studies of his friends, including a series for Hester Thrale’s library. Reynolds’s painting of Johnson does not attempt to idealize the eccentric author but stresses the genius of his mind, paradoxically through
his physical imperfections. Johnson’s near-sighted squint in this painting allegedly displeased the writer, who
gained the nickname ‘Blinking Sam’ from his appearance in Reynolds’s portrait.
Max Klinger Beethoven, 1902 Although best known as a printmaker, Klinger began producing sculpture in the
1890s. He was fascinated by ancient polychrome sculpture, and he experimented with a variety of materials, from conventional bronze and marble to glass and jewels. His statue of Beethoven demonstrates his
versatility with these different materials. This sculpture was part of the Fourteenth Vienna Secession exhibition, which
was a joint venture with artists such as Gustav Klimt. The exhibition was dedicated to Beethoven, and Klinger’s
idealized portrait sculpture was the centrepiece of a bold and innovative display.
Andrea Mantegna Meeting between Ludovico and Francesco Gonzaga, the Camera degli Sposi, Palazzo Ducale, Mantua, 1465–74 Mantegna was lured by Ludovico, Marquess of Gonzaga, to Mantua, where he
came and settled in 1459, working primarily for the Gonzaga court for the rest of his life. Among his
commissions for the court Mantegna was asked to decorate the wedding chamber (‘Camera degli Sposi’) in the Gonzaga palace. The result was a complex composition containing many members of the Gonzaga
family, young and old, amidst a landscape and cityscape filled with detail. Although many portraits were included
in the composition, the frescoes also served to give a flavour of the daily life of the Mantuan ruling family. This
section of the fresco includes Ludovico himself and his second son, Francesco.
Michele Gordigiani Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1858 Gordigiani was an Italian portrait painter who benefited
from the presence of artists, writers, and intellectuals from America and other parts of Europe who congregated in
Italy during the second half of the nineteenth century. The English poet and intellectual Elizabeth Barrett Browning
settled with her husband Robert Browning in Florence from 1846 until her death in 1861, and Gordigiani painted
this portrait of her in the last years of her life.
Walter Richard Sickert Minnie Cunningham at the Old Bedford, 1892 After studying with Degas in Paris in 1883, Sickert returned to London and spent
the next few years painting working-class music halls like this one. In these paintings Sickert used unusual viewpoints and included both audiences and performers. They were most controversial at the time for their representation of popular performers and lower-class audiences, but Sickert’s
music hall scenes also included portraits of performers like this, known for their comic ‘turns’ and raucous singing.
Lev Bakst Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev with His Nanny, 1904–6 Although best known for his illustrations and theatre designs, Bakst was also an
accomplished portraitist. He worked closely with Diaghilev from the 1890s, when the latter founded the journal Mir Iskusstva (World of Art); later
he assisted Diaghilev in the designs for productions by the Ballets Russes. The two were thus very close, and this portrait has the quality of a
work replete with personal symbolism. Bakst has represented Diaghilev as a confident dandy—a role he consciously cultivated—but
the presence of his Russian nanny in the background somewhat undercuts the exuberance of Diaghilev’s stance. It has been suggested
that this portrait may symbolize Diaghilev’s rejection of his native Russia, as he made his name outside his home country.
Jane Bown Samuel Beckett, 1976 This revealing portrait of the poet and playwright Samuel Beckett was one of a number of photographic portraits of
celebrities by Jane Bown, who worked for the English Observer newspaper for 45 years. Bown always photographed her celebrity subjects in black and white,
and she claimed that her goal was to produce a truthful image rather than one obtained by tricks or manipulations of the technical potential of the camera. This
photograph was not based on a planned sitting but, according to one anecdote, resulted from Bown requesting a sitting from Beckett at the stage door of
the Royal Court Theatre in London. Whether or not this is a faithful record of events, it emphasizes the lack of deliberation that characterized her portrait
Jan Steen The Baker Arent Oostwaard and His Wife Catharina Keizerswaard, 1658 Although he painted a few portraits Steen was best known for his low-life genre
and ‘merry company’ scenes. Some of the qualities of the merry company paintings can be seen in this portrait. The sitters are grinning, posed
informally, and Oostwaard has ruddy features and a bulbous nose.
Andy Warhol No. 204: Marilyn Diptych, 1962 Warhol began his career as a commercial artist, and his fascination with popular culture remained a trademark
of his work even after he shifted his attention to ‘fine art’ practice. Warhol’s choice of subject matter was thus dictated by the commercialism of the 1960s,
and his depictions of such pop icons as Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley were as representative of this consumer culture as his repetitions of Brillo boxes and
Campbell’s soup cans. However, his reproductions of iconic figures also drew attention to commercial desires that shift from ownership of objects to
obsessions about famous people. Warhol’s work opens up questions about how individuals respond to portraits of celebrities.