The Portrait I. a brief history of.

Or how the photography changed the whole concept of the portrait.

It is told that the concept we have of portrait was born in Renaissance, when human being start becoming the main part and focus of life, and imaginary visions of the artists. But let’s face the facts, as at that time the concept of sponsor became quite important, so nobles, church and bourgeois people start sponsoring artists with also the need of having them portrayed for life, or for eternity.

Giovanna by Ghirlandaio

Maybe it was a mix of both, artists having the need to put on canvas some faces and also to please their sponsors’ vanity portraying them.

There were some great masters then on portraits that made some “rules” of portraiture. Some shyness, face looking slightly down, the side light from the window, the face in profile or 3/4 but never facing the artist… except their eyes. The result was wonderful and charming, shy and witty.

portrait of a musician, by Leonardo da Vinci

Since then many masters in painting expressed their recognition to their sponsors, or even painting some beautiful ladies that gave them inspiration for it. Maybe even as a subtle love letter. How romantic would be to paint a magnificent portrait of the one you love as declaration?

Jan van Eyck, the man in a red turban

From Ghirlandaio to Ingres, from Da Vinci to Picasso. The posture got some evolution but not much in the concept.

Picasso, self portrait, 1970

Only when the photography arrived the portrait imposed itself as something that would change the concept. The first portrait known was taken in 1826 by Joseph Niépce to Robert Cornelius. A face front portrait looking to the side, opposite of the classic painted portraits. And after that, people start looking straight to the camera. In the painting happened the same, being most of the first ones self-portraits with the artist facing and challenging not only themselves but also the viewer. Daring to challenge.

1st portrait in photography: Robert Cornelius by Joseph Niépce, 1826

Photography broke the rules on portraiture.

Karen Blixen, 1962 by Cecil Beaton

Also we can’t forget the use of flash, so the light would come from the front and not from the side anymore. So people start facing the light, the camera, the artist and the photographer.

All the artists start doing self portraits, most as a self-challenge, also a bit of vanity perhaps, but essentially I believe that in doing self-portraits we are able to experiment with ourselves without problem, easier than experiment with other people, as if it goes wrong we don’t have to excuse. With photography lots of experiences came out, turning the portrait an art itself. Being creative bringing the personality behind the face.

René and Georgette Magritte, 1932 by René Magritte

Balthus and his wife, 1997 by Bruce Weber

I can’t resist talking about those kids who were portrayed by photographers, who, not having much patience for them, covered their mothers with blankets to keep them quite.

Man Ray was quite creative in portraits. Bringing the personality attached to his sense of creativity. But as Oscar Wilde wrote once: ” Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.”

André Breton, 1930 by Man Ray

Portrait of Tanya Ramm, 1930 by Man Ray

The portrait has then giving us much more than just a face. It always brought the cloths, the background, some aspects quite interesting to show the nobility or wealthy of the portrayed. After photography start counting more the creativity, the challenge. The person itself.

Portrait of Cocteau in Bed with Mask, 1927 by Berenice Abbott

portrait of Deak R., by Gonzalo Bénard, Paris 2012

Andy Warhol was probably the one responsible to give a more commercial use to the portrait, with his portraits of Mao, Marylin, etc
Mapplethorp was also a master in it, and from him we have great portraits like the one he did of the wonderful Louise Bourgeois with the big phallus.

Louise Bourgeois 1982, by Robert Mapplethorpe

And more recently we have Annie Leibovitz, who is well known by her portraits from DiCaprio to Sontag, or even the more classic Queen’s portrait.

Turquoise Marilyn by Andy Wahrol

Self-Portrait by Andy Wahrol

But a “real” portrait concept is supposed to be the face, not going bellow the chest/breasts. From the nipples to hair, and within we should be able to bring the portrayed person.

Liz Taylor by Richard Avedon

Isabella Rosellini, by Robert Mapplethorpe

Leonardo diCaprio, by A. Leibovitz

Apart from the self portraits that became almost a rule to every artist and photographer, there’s also another game that we all end up playing, challenging our peers: doing portraits of each others, artist to artist, photographer to writers, artists to photographers and vice versa. Robert Mapplethrop shot Warhol. Warhol shot Marylin. Leibovitz shot Iggy Pop. Mapplethorp shot Leibovitz who shot Mapplethorp. Avedon shot Liz taylor and Barbara Streisand. Leibovitz shot Sontag and Burroughs. Cartier-Bresson shot Camus, Fisher shot Schiele in 1915. Cecil Beaton shot Jean Cocteau and Jean Cocteau shot Beaton. Coffin shot Lucian Freud. Kubrick shot Bernstein. Man Ray shot Duchamp. Newman shot Mondrian. A non-stop of artists shooting other artists.

Portrait of Fritz Lang, 1936

There’s no more the concept of 3/4, profile or face front. There are no more rules of light from the right or left of front. A portrait of someone can even be of his back head with shoulders. Usually, a Portrait of someone is from the nipples up, but not even that is a rule anymore. The rule is to bring the person out, the personality… or in case the beauty is more interesting than the personality, why not bring the beauty itself and forget the person beyond? It can be a creative game… or still a vanity one.

self portrait, by Robert Mapplethorpe

Gonzalo Bénard, self portrait

But I can’t finish without talking about conceptual portraiture, where the artist creates a portrait that not necessarily brings the person but a created concept that becomes more important than the person portrayed.  In that case forget the vanity, even in the case of self portrait, a conceptual portrait can turn your face scary if that is the concept of it.

Erwin Blumenfeld Self-Portrait with mask, New York 1958

Tania Ramm, 1930 by Lee Miller

Horned self portrait, by Gonzalo Bénard

But a portrait will always be a portrait. And that’s why there’s a National Portrait Gallery and now a Portrait Salon like the Salon des Refusées for those who break the rules. That’s why the portraiture became an art itself, no matter if it’s by a technical photographer, beauty one, art-photographer or any other artist.

Ezra Pound 1918, by E.O. Hoppé

And in this world of vanity who doesn’t want to be portrayed? It’s an ego calling, or a need of 5 minutes of attention. To the eternity.

As we think.

self portrait with webcam, by Gonzalo Bénard

text by ©GBénard