The Stages of Life
Portrait Paintings, The Stages of Life
Age is a significant factor in all portraiture, but it is one that too often gets taken for granted. Portraits are frequently produced at significant moments in the sitter’s life, such as childhood, important occasions in young adulthood (for example marriage), and old age. The representations of age could be a great challenge for portraitists, who were often hampered by the competing demands of likeness and flattery. Just as artists could display their abilities through the manipulation of many figures in group portraits, so they could also demonstrate their skills by close attention to the signs of age in their sitters. Artists could concentrate on delineating the signs of age as faithfully as possible, or they could show children as young adults or divest the elderly of wrinkles and blemishes. Such decisions about how to deal with the age of their sitters varied in different times and places.
The problem for the historian of portraiture is determining the age of the sitter. With documentary evidence of birth and death dates, and dates of sittings, it is sometimes possible to infer the age of the sitter, but it is difficult to recognize what age the sitter was intended to be; this could be at variance with such documentation, as with portraits of Elizabeth I. Preconceptions about age would have governed the decisionmaking processes of artists, patrons, and sitters, and they also colour our own interpretations—which may be different to those of the past.
The inextricable relationship between portraiture and mortality is also an issue. As I have argued, portraits can be mementos of a living moment that has gone forever. The age of the sitter is a further intimation of that lost moment. Thus portraits of children can often contain symbolism of life’s transience; portraits of young adults can exhibit an ideal but ultimately artificial perfection; and portraits of the elderly can become essays on the proximity of death.
Ideas of childhood, its limits, and its meanings are historically specific. Nearly all civilizations value children but their concerns can be very different. Some focus on children as carrying on the family line; others Detail of 83 have a more sentimental view of the significance of childhood. Children The Stages of Life have been seen as both economic necessities and emotional binds.
Childhood has also been subject to different temporal limits. While some societies believe that childhood ends well before puberty, others conceive of it as extending to the teenage years. Although conceptions of childhood are unstable and historically contingent, it can also be argued that there are certain constants. Most cultures have not only valued children as a social necessity but have recognized the emotional attachment felt for them by their parents and guardians. Whatever the conception or limits of childhood, its significance has meant that children
have been important subjects of portraiture. Portraits of children were inevitably commissioned by adults, whose views of the children, and of childhood in general, often influenced the choices made in these representations.
In some periods of history children are understood to be adults in miniature, and it is therefore their adult qualities that are emphasized in portraiture. Such works will show a child wearing adult clothes or mimicking a conventional pose. At other times the state of childhood itself has been romanticized or sentimentalized, and portraitists have engaged with the distinctive qualities attributed to children, such as playfulness or innocence. Works in this category will show children playing, exhibiting facial expressions not normally used in adult portraiture, or lounging in casual postures that would be inappropriate for formal portraits. Many portraits represent a tension between the innocent child and the adult-to-be. In each case the general state of childhood
becomes a subtext of the specific portrait.
Portraits of children can be traced back to Roman Egypt, where mummy effigies commemorated people who died in infancy. The extant Fayum portraits represent individuals of all ages, as they appeared at the point of their death. Such portraits served a ritual and religious function in Roman Egypt, so the very existence of the effigy of
the deceased individual (whether child or adult) was more important than their age.
Death was also a theme in secular portraits of children in later periods. Until the twentieth century witnessed major advances in medicine, nutrition, and sanitation in the developed world, death at birth or in infancy was common at all levels of society. Parents therefore had to accept the possibility that none of their children would survive. Portraits of children before the twentieth century frequently engaged with the issue of death, often in a symbolic way, even while they showed living and healthy children. The Graham Children, by the English artist William Hogarth, offers an eloquent demonstration. Four seemingly healthy and happy children are shown posing cheerfully, smiling, playing with their toys, and holding hands while symbols of death and the loss of innocence abound. The predatory cat threatening the canary in the cage and the figure of Time with his scythe on top of the clock are only two of the symbolic references to the loss of childhood through experience and/or death. The death of the youngest of the children here while Hogarth was completing the portrait did not stop the artist from
including him as if he were alive.
Throughout the history of portraiture, however, there has also been a tendency to show children as miniature adults. The contrast between adult postures and clothes and childlike faces is apparent in works such
as Velázquez’ various portraits of children . For example, Velázquez represents Philip IV’s daughter, the Infanta Margarita, standing in a conventional portrait posture with a characteristically adult frozen
facial expression. But while we seem to see here a miniaturized adult, we also get a strong sense of the smallness of the child through the vast garments that encompass her frame, her tiny hands, and pouting mouth. Portraits such as these were meant to represent the child in their official state role. While such portraits often served a public or ceremonial purpose, the impression they conveyed of childhood could be ambiguous. Children represented as miniature adults may appear to be masquerading, but underlying such representations are the discordant
tropes of childhood innocence and adult sexuality. The fact that royal children such as the infanta were being groomed for marriage from a very early age reinforces our dual vision of the child/adult.
Velázquez’ Flemish contemporary Gerrit Dou used a different tactic in his portrait of Prince Rupert of the Palatinate . Dou plays with the contrast of youth and age characteristic of some family portraiture,
but the emphasis here is on the child being educated for his public role.
The fact that both tutor and pupil are in fancy dress gives a deliberate air of masquerade. A portrait such as The Graham Children symbolically represents death and the loss of innocence; by contrast, this portrait is a metaphor for the process of passing the wisdom of age on to the ignorance of youth. Here Prince Rupert is shown acquiring the tools he will need for his later public role, but Dou gives us no sense that the prince is anything but a child. While Velázquez’ Margarita appears as a sort of iconic figure, Dou’s narrative calls attention to the link between Rupert’s education and his future responsibilities.
From the seventeenth century onwards it was increasingly common for portraits to stress children’s distinctiveness from adults and to sentimentalize this difference. Part of this change was the result of a greater social and psychological attention to the state of childhood itself. By the early nineteenth century the innocence and beauty of childhood became the subject of Romantic poetry extolling the unblemished innocence of the child, even while it recognized the poignancy of loss that came with the growth to adulthood and old age. Portraits of children
lost their adult-in-miniature quality, and even when they seemed to foreshadow the adult hiding in the child, this was done in such a way as to emphasize the childishness of the sitter. The Symbolist movement that flourished throughout Europe and in America in the late nineteenth century took on Romanticism’s fascination with the poignant
and nostalgic qualities of childhood. In the portrait of Jeanne Kefer by the Belgian Symbolist Fernand Khnopff , the sitter gazes shyly but directly out of the frame and appears uncomfortably overdressed. Her pose is not unlike that of the Infanta Margarita, but the effect of her gesture, expression, and costume is redolent of childish timidity rather than monumentality. This portrait seems to hint at a deeper meaning, but like Khnopff ’s other Symbolist work these potential themes remain implied and indeterminate.
In each of these cases, the portraitist had a number of decisions and choices to make. Social expectations would have dictated whether a child needed to be seen as presaging a future adult role, or whether the otherness, innocence, or playfulness of childhood was to be emphasized.
The artist had to work with the physiognomy of the child, whose facial character was not fully formed, and would thus often experiment instead with pose, dress, posture, and gesture. Portraits of children also gave artists the possibility of evoking larger themes, such as death or loss of innocence. In each case it is important to remember that portraits of children were commissioned by adults, who had a range of motivations from affection to an assertion of the child’s social role.
Many portraits represent individuals at the prime of their lives, in the years of young adulthood. There are abundant portraits from this period in the life-cycle because in many countries and periods, adults in their
late teens, twenties, and thirties are going through possibly the most significant phase in their lives. These are the years of independence, marriage, and inheritance of parental property. Although marriage is almost universally considered a highly significant moment in any individual’s life, it is also a social phenomenon, bringing with it the possibility of dynastic succession, the maintenance or creation of new family allegiances, or economic power. The period of young adulthood is also a time when elders die, leaving money, estates, or titles to their children. Given the status of portraiture before the modern period as a primarily elite art form, it is no surprise that these significant life moments were the subject of representation. Portraits were frequently commissioned at the time of marriage or title inheritance. Such portraits do not necessarily refer to these moments, but there is often a direct relationship between marriage, inheritance, and so on, and the commissioning of portraits.
However, there is another significant reason why portraits are often commissioned in the years of young adulthood. This is a time when the face is fully formed but has not lost its freshness. Flattery has often been an important consideration for portrait sitters, and the desire to be portrayed at the best moments of one’s life is not a surprising human reaction. For example, the beauty of youth was a characteristic of much Renaissance portraiture. Italian artists in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries stressed the ideal qualities of the sitter’s face, even while they paid careful attention to the depiction of likeness. This is true not only for women but also for men. Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Medal of Cosimo de’ Medici (c.1465) is one such work . The identity
of the portrait sitter is no longer known, nor can his relationship with Cosimo de’ Medici be discerned from the image. The very anonymity of the sitter makes the work as much an essay in youthful male beauty as a portrait. The poetic and philosophical basis of Italian portraiture in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries made the ideal beauty of youth take precedence over notions of specific likeness. As Cathy Santore has shown, it was only at the end of the sixteenth century that Venetian paintings of beautiful women were labelled portraits (ritratti) in inventories; previously they had been referred to as pictures (quadri), which suggests a rather different function.2 Generic portraits by Titian, Giorgione, and Palma Vecchio in the sixteenth century move even further in
the direction of blurring the distinction between portraits and ideal representations of young men and women [see 94]. This slippage between the portrait function and the theme of ideal beauty gives such works a poetic quality, and much of this rests on the representation of youth they convey. This Renaissance concentration on the sitter in the years of young adulthood thus served the purpose of allowing the artist to achieve most satisfactorily a balance between likeness and ideal.
There are also symbolic reasons why portraits might concentrate on the young adulthood of their sitters. Hellenistic royal portraits from the third century bc, for instance, always represented kings as youthful—a
state that was signalled by the lack of a beard.3 The image of a young beardless king was not unlike that of a god, and this analogy between royalty and divinity was one that was also explicitly made in cult statuary.
In early modern Europe, images of youthful regality had fewer religious connotations but were no less symbolically significant. Queen Elizabeth I’s portraits were attempts to endow her with an iconic presence (see Chapter 3), but they also preserved her face at the stage of young adulthood.
What is considered old age differs dramatically in place and time. Shakespeare’s reference to the seven ages of man in As You Like It has a universal resonance in its image of enfeeblement and ‘second child-hood’, but the actual age at which this decrepitude occurs is not specified.
Whereas Shakespeare describes old age in terms of dress and behaviour, old age in portraiture is expressed by wrinkled skin, faded or mottled complexion, or white hair. It is thus the signs of ageing, rather than the actual age of the sitter, that we can identify. Some of the most powerful portraits are those that show their sitters in old age. While the reasons for choosing to concentrate on youth may be the significance of this period of life, the issue of flattery, or the iconic nature of the portrait, old age equally carries with it a series of important associations. In different periods of history portraitists have prized or reviled the elderly according to contemporary attitudes. Concern about an unflattering image has prevented many potential sitters from commissioning
portraits at a later stage in their life, but artists and sitters have also found the signs of age and experience a stamp of character, wisdom, and experience, and thus potent material for expressive portraiture.
Several countries and periods in the history of art have favoured portraits of the elderly, and it is worth examining the social and historical reasons why this is so. In ancient Rome, for example, old age was a common subject in portrait sculpture. The wrinkled and lined skin and sunken flesh of Roman portrait busts have been interpreted as evidence of likeness, but it is equally possible that these signs of age were products of a culture that valued age as an indication of experience and authority. Those cultures that revived Roman examples, such as the Italian Renaissance, favoured similar stylistic effects for representing the signs of age.4 Cardinals and popes, for instance, were frequently represented with the signs of ageing showing in their faces.
One of the earliest free-standing northern European portraits represents a cardinal: Van Eyck’s portrait of Cardinal Niccolò Albergati picks out the crow’s feet around Albergati’s eyes, the chicken-like neck, and the receding hairline.
Another significant era for the representation of old age was the socalled ‘Romantic’ period at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century. In Europe during this time much attention was paid to the stages of life and to the extremes of both childhood and old age. The publication of Lavater’s essays on physiognomy in 1775–8 helped popularize the idea that facial features could be a sign of personality traits, and this contributed to the Romantic interest in individuality and character (see Chapter 1). This fascination found its way into portraits that concentrated on the imperfections of the sitters, rather than on idealized qualities.
In the twentieth century, especially after the Second World War, the privileging of formal experimentation associated with avant-garde artists meant that sitters could be willing to choose a portraitist whose representation of them highlighted, rather than concealed, the signs of age. With the growth of photographic portraiture and photorealism the blemishes and wrinkles of age have become a common theme in works by artists as diverse as Chuck Close [see 135] and Jo Spence.
Perhaps the representation of age in portraiture has become so widespread because the average age of the population of the Western world has risen dramatically, owing to advances in medicine and sanitation.
More people live longer, and age has become a powerful political and social issue in many countries. Accompanying this demographic pattern are mixed feelings about the ageing population, due to a strong popular culture of youth, health, and vigour.
In all periods of history, however, portraits of elderly sitters have certain resonances in common. First of all, age is frequently represented in portraiture as a sign of authority, wisdom, and experience. In premodern
periods these qualities are frequently reserved for the representation of age in male sitters only, as the more positive connotations of ageing—such as wisdom and authority—were generally considered to be public virtues that were simply unavailable to women, whose lives were lived almost solely in the domestic sphere.6 When ageing was
associated with women, the connotations could be different. Portraits of artists’ mothers, such as those by Rembrandt and Whistler, associate ageing with matriarchal authority and domestic stability.
Conversely, some contemporary women artists have recognized the social stigma of ageing for women, and have chosen to draw attention to society’s hypocrisy about ageing. Alice Neel demonstrates this most effectively in her provocative self-portrait. Here she plays with taboos of old age and nudity, but satirically exaggerates her sagging breasts and stomach in a work that otherwise shows her in a conventional seated portrait pose.
There are exceptions to this gender-specific representation of ageing in portraiture. Portraits of charitable societies in the Low Countries in the seventeenth century show elderly women as distinguished and wise
by virtue of their age. Women artists also painted self-portraits in which they studied their own ageing with a seemingly detached eye. This was the case for the seventeenth-century Italian artist Sofonisba Anguissola,
who painted portraits of herself at many different stages of her life, and provides a dispassionate but by no means harsh view of herself in old age . Here the signs of ageing—thin lips, leathery complexion, and greying hair—accompany a sombre expression that is both dignified and moving.
A second reason for showing age in portraiture is the challenge to the artist of the expressive possibilities in representing the complexity of ageing facial features. Most notably Rembrandt played with this expressive power in his own late self-portraits, where he is uncompromisingly severe in his treatment of his ageing. The German twentiethcentury printmaker Käthe Kollwitz also produced numerous selfportraits highlighting her ageing features. She deliberately represented herself as ugly, even ape-like, and stressed the square masculinity of her face in a sometimes brutal way. It is notable that such expressive portraits of ageing are most frequently self-portraits, as artists found opportunities to experiment with their representation of the human countenance in a way that may not have been tenable in commissioned portraits.
Perhaps some of the most powerful self-portraits representing the ageing face are those of the Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck. Schjerfbeck painted over 20 self-portraits between the ages of 77 and 83.
This portrait of the highly uccessful Italian artist is one of 12 surviving self-portraits that Anguissola painted at different points in her life. As she lived to be over 90, the portraits catalogue her ageing face. These portraits represent Anguissola’s diverse accomplishments, from painting to music. She ended her career with her
artist/husband at the court of King Philip II in Madrid.
These portraits serve a parallel purpose to earlier portraits of anonymous youths by Titian and Giorgione in that they defy easy categorization and seem to be as representative of a stage of life as they are of Schjerfbeck as an individual. As she aged, Schjerfbeck gradually distorted and masked her own features in her portraits. By the end of the series the bony visage and thin hair of an old woman becomes an eyeless and empty skull-like mask. Schjerfbeck alludes to her own closeness to death in these works.
The motivations for producing portraits representing sitters at the stages of youth, maturity, and old age have thus varied enormously.
Children could be depicted as a result of affection, pride, or grief; young adults could be represented as exemplary of ideal states or as reminders of important life events; and portraits of the elderly could encapsulate
prevailing ideas about the wisdom of experience, or show the skill of the artist. Whatever the combination of motivations and effects, portraits show how both artists and sitters engaged with prevalent ideas of youth and age in their own times.