1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Portraiture

PORTRAITURE. The earliest attempts at individual portraiture (see also PAINTING) are found in the eidolon and mummy-cases of the ancient Egyptians; but their painting never went beyond conventional representation-mere outlines filled in with a flat tint of colour. In Greece portraiture probably had its origin in skiagraphy or shadow-painting. The story of the Greek maiden tracing the shadow of her departing lover on the wall points to this. The art developed rapidly. In 463 B.c., Polygnotus, one of the first Greek painters of distinction, introduced individual portraiture in the decoration of public buildings, and Apelles nearly a century later showed so much genius in rendering character and expression, that Alexander the Great appointed him “portrait painter in ordinary, ” and issued' an edict forbidding any one else to produce pictorial representations of his majesty. Similar edicts were issued in favour of the sculptor Lysippus and Pyrgoteles the gem engraver. No works of the Greek painters survive, but the fate of two portraits by Apelles, which were in the possession of the emperor Claudius (A.D. 41-54), is known, the heads having been painted out to make room for the features of the divine Augustus!

After the time of Alexander (300 B.C.) Greek art rapidly deteriorated. There is, perhaps, nothing in the history of human intelligence to compare with the dazzling 'swiftness of its development or the rapidity of its decline. War was followed by pillage and devastation, and victorious Roman generals, mere depredators and plunderers, crowded Rome with the stolen treasures of Greece, with the result that Greek art and Greek influence soon made themselves felt in-the imperial city, and for generations its artists were almost exclusively Greeks, chiefly portrait painters and decorators. The Romans possessed no innate aptitude for art, and rather despised it as a pursuit little becoming the dignity of a citizen. Although lacking in appreciation of the higher conditions of art, they had from early times decorated their atria with effigies-originally wax moulds-of the countenances of their ancestors. These primitive “ wax-works ” ultimately developed into portrait busts, often vivid and faithful, the only branch of art in which Rome achieved excellence.

With the invasion of the Northern barbarians and the fall of the empire Graeco-Roman art ended. In the following centuries Christianity gradually became the dominant religion, but its ascetic temper could not find expression in the old artistic forms. Instead of joy in the ideals of bodily perfection, came a loathing of the body and its beauty, and artists were classed among “persons of iniquitous occupations. ” Before the 5th century these prejudices had relaxed, and images and pictures again came into general favour for religious uses. In the 8th and 9th centuries, the iconoclasts commenced their systematic destruction, and it was not till the Renaissance in the 13th century that art began again to live. The great revival brought with it a closer observation of the facts of nature and a growing sense of beauty, and the works of Cimabue and Giotto prepared the way for those of Benozzo Gozzoli, Ghirlandaio and the long line of masters who raised Italian art to such a height in the 15th and 16th centuries. Although the works of the early painters of the Renaissance were mostly devoted to the expression of the dogmas of the Church, the growing love and study of nature led them, as opportunity afforded, to introduce portraits of living contemporaries into their sacred pictures. Gozzoli (142O°I4Q8) and Ghirlandaio (1449-1494) began the practice, followed by nearly all the old and great painters, of introducing portraiture into their works; Ghirlandaio especially filling some of his great fresco compositions with the forms and features of the living men and women of Florence, members of the Tornabuoni, Medici and other great families. Acuteness of observation was innate in the race. By degrees it manifested itself in a marvellous subtlety in the rendering of individual character, in the portrayal of individual men and women, and a school of portraiture was developed of which Titian became the crowning glory. This great Venetian painter, by universal consent reckoned one of the masters of portraiture, has handed down to us the features of many of the greatest historical and literary personages of his time-emperor, pope, king, doge-all sat by turn to him and loaded him with honours. The names of Bellini, Raffaelle, Tintoret, Vercmese and Moroni of Bergamo occur among those of the great Italian portrait painters of the I 5th and 16th centuries. The last-named, some of whose finest works are now in England, was highly praised by Titian. A love of ugliness characterizes the artists of the early German and Flemish schools, and most of the portraits produced by them previous to Holbein's time suffer from this cause. Schtingauer, Dürer and Lucas Cranach are never agreeable or pleasant, however interesting in other respects. Dürer, the typical German artist, the dreamer of dreams, the theorist, the thinker, the Writer, was less fitted by nature for a portrait painter than Holbein, who, with a keen sense of nature's subtle beauty, was a far greater painter although a less powerful personality. He produced many fine works in other branches, but it is as a portrait painter that Holbein is chiefly known, and his highest claims to fame will rest on his marvellous achievements in that branch of art. He first came to England in 1526, bringing with him letters of introduction from Erasmus. Sir Thomas More received him as his guest, and during his stay he painted More's and Archbishop Warham's portraits. In 1532 he was again in London, where till his death in 1543 he spent much of his time. He was largely employed by the German merchants of the Steelyard and many Englishmen of not.e, and afterwards by Henry VIII., by whom he was taken into permanent service with a pension. As a portrait painter Holbein is remarkable not only for his keen insight into the character of his sitters, but for the beauty and delicacy of his drawing. As colourist he may be judged by an admirable example of his work, “ The Ambassadors, ” in the National Gallery in London. Many of his drawings appear to have been made as preliminary studies for his portraits.

In Flanders ]an van Eyck (1390-1440), his brother Hubert, Quintin Matsys, Memlinc and other artists of the 15th century occasionally practised portraiture. The picture of Jean Arnoliini and his wife, in the National Gallery, London, is a remarkable sample of the first-named artist, and the small half-length of young Martin van Nieumenhoven, in the hospital of St John at Bruges, of the last-named. Nearly a century later the names of Antony Mor (or Moro), Rubens and Van Dyck appear. Rubens, although not primarily a painter of portraits, achieved no small distinction in that way, being much employed by royalty (Maria de Medici, Philip IV. and the English Charles I. among the number). His services were also in request as ambassador or diplomatist, and thrice at least he was sent on missions of that nature. His personal energy and industry were enormous, but a large proportion of the work attributed to him was painted by pupils, of whom Van Dyck was one of the most celebrated. Van Dyck (1599-1641) early acquired a high reputation as a portrait painter. In 1632 he was invited to England by Charles I., and settled there for the remainder of his life. He was knighted by Charles, and granted a pension of £200 a year, with the title of painter to his majesty. Many of Van Dyck's portraits, especially those of the early and middle periods, are unsurpassed in their freshness, force and vigour of handling. He is a master among masters.. England possesses many of his works, especially of his later period. To Van Dyck we owe much of our knowledge of what Charles I. and those about him were like. A routine practice, luxurious living, failing health, and the employment of assistants told upon his work, which latterly lost much of its early charm. In Holland in the 17th century portraiture reached a high standard. A reaction had set in against Italian influence, and extreme faithfulness and literal resemblance became the prevailing fashion. The large portrait pictures of the members of gil ds and corporations, so frequently met with in Holland, are characteristically Dutch. The earliest Works Of the kind are generally rows of portraits ranged in double or single lines, without much attempt at grouping or composition. Later, in the hands of painters like Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Van der Helst, these pictures of civic guards, hospital regents and masters of gilds assumed a very different character, and are among the very finest works produced by the Dutch portrait painters of the 17th century. They may be termed “ subscription portraits ”-each member of the gild who desired a place on the canvas agreeing, before the commission was given, to pay, according to a graduated scale, his share of the cost. Among the most famous examples of this class of portraits are “The Anatomy Lesson, ” “ The March-out of Captain Banning Kock and his Company ” (erroneously called “The Night Watch ”), and “ The Five Syndics of the Cloth-Workers Guild, ” by Rembrandt. The magnificent portrait groups at Haarlem by Hals-the next greatest portrait painter of Holland after Rembrandt-and the “ Schuttersmaaltyd ” by Van der Helst in the Amsterdam Museum, which Reynolds considered “ perhaps the first picture of portraits in the world, ” must also be mentioned.

Of the pictorial art of Spain previous to the 15th century, little, if any, survives. Flemish example was long paramount and Flemish painters were patronized in high places. In the 16th century the names of native Spanish artists began to appear-Morales, Ribera, Zurbaran, a great though not a professed portrait painter; and in the last year of the century Velasquez was born, the greatest of Spain's artists, and one of the great portrait painters of the world. None, perhaps, has ever equalled him in keen insight into character, or in the swift magic of his brush. Philip IV., Olivarez and Innocent X. live for us on his canvases. His constantly varying, though generally extremely simple, methods, explain to some extent the interest and charm his works possess for artists. Depth of feeling and poetic imagination were, however, lacking, as may be seen in his prosaic treatment of such subjects as the “ Coronation of the Virgin, ” the “ Mars ” and other kindred works in the Madrid Gallery. Velasquez must be classed with those whose career has been prematurely cut short. His works often show signs of haste and of the scanty leisure which the duties of his office of “ Aposentador Mayor ” left him-duties which ended in the fatal journey to the Isle of Rhé. In France the most distinguished portrait painters of the 16th and 17th centuries were the Clouets, Cousin, Vouet, Philippe de Champaigne, Rigaud and Vanloo. French portraiture, long inflated and artificial, reached the height of pomposity in the reigns of Louis XIV. and XV., the epoch of which the towering wig is the symbol. In the 18th and early part of the 19th centuries occur the names of Boucher, Greuze, David, Gérard and Ingres; but somehow the portraits of the French masters seldom attract and captivate in 'the same way as those of the Dutch and Italian painters.

Foreign artists were engaged for almost every important work in painting in England down to the days of Sir Ioshua Reynolds and Gainsborough. Henry VIII. employed Holbein; Queen Mary, Sir Antonio Moro; Elizabeth, Zucchero and Lucas de Heere; James I. van Somer, Cornelius Janssens and Daniel Mytens; Charles I. Rubens, Van Dyck, Mytens, Petitot, Honthorst and others; and Charles II., Lely and Kneller, although there were native artists of merit, among them Dobson, Walker and Jarnesone, a Scottish painter. Puritan England and Presbyterian Scotland did little to encourage the portrait painter. The attitude of the latter towards it may be inferred from an entry in the diary of Sir Thomas Hope, the Scottish Lord Advocate in 1638. “ This day, Friday, William Jamesone, painter (at the earnest desyr of my sone Mr Alexander) was sufferit to draw my pictur.” He does not even give the painter's name correctly, although Jamesone at the time was a man of some note in Scotland. At the commencement of the reign of George I. art in England had sunk to about the lowest ebb. With the appearance of William Hogarth (1697-1 764) the English school of painting may be said to have commenced, and in Reynolds and Gainsborough it produced two portrait painters xxn. 5

whose works hold their own with those of the masters of the 16th and 17th centuries. Both Sir Joshua and Gainsborough are seen at their best in portraits of women and children. George Romney (1734-1802) shared with Reynolds and Gainsborough the patronage of the wealthy and fashionable of his day. Many of his female portraits are of great beauty. For some unknown reason he never exhibited his works in the Royal Academy.

Sir Henry Raeburn (17 56-1823) was a native of Edinburgh, and spent most of his life there. His portraits are broad and effective in treatment, masterly and swift in execution and often fine in colour, He painted nearly all the distinguished Scotsmen of his time-Walter Scott, Adam Smith, Braxiield, Robertson the historian, Dugald Stewart, Boswell, Jeffrey, Professor Wilson and many of the leading noblemen, lairds, clergy and their wives and daughters. For a considerable period his portraits were little known out of Scotland, but they are now much sought after, and fine examples appearing in London sale-rooms bring remarkable prices. Raeburn's immediate successor in Scotland, ]. Watson Gordon (1788-1864), also painted many excellent portraits, chiefly of men. A very characteristic example of his art at its best may be seen in his “ Provost of Peterhead ” in the Scottish National Gallery. Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1850) was the favourite English portrait painter of his time, and had an almost unrivalled career. He had an immense practice, and between the years 1787 and 1839 exhibited upwards of three hundred portraits in the Royal Academy alone. The Waterloo Gallery at Windsor contains some of his best work, chiefly painted in 1818-1819, including his portraits of the emperor Francis, Pope Pius VII. and Cardinal Gonsalvi. He was loaded with honours, and died President of the Royal Academy.

Sir ]. E. Millais (1829-1896), although most widely known as a painter of figure subjects, achieved some of his greatest successes in portraiture, and no artist in recent years has approached him as a painter of children. His portraits of Gladstone, Sir James Paget, Sir Gilbert Greenall, Simon Fraser, ]. C. Hook and Mrs. Bischoffsheim, to name only a few, are alone sufficient to give him a high place among British portrait painters. Frank Holl (1845-1888) first came into note as a portrait painter in 1878, and during the subsequent nine years of his life he painted upwards of one hundred and ninety-eight portraits, an average of over twenty-two a year. The strain, however, proved too great for a naturally delicate constitution, and he died at the age of forty-three-another instance of a brilliant career prematurely cut short. To G. F. Watts (1820-1904) we are indebted for admirable portraits of many of the leading men of the Victorian era in politics, science, literature, theology and art. Among more recent artists, Sir W. Q. Orchardson (1835-1910), like Millais more widely known as a painter of figure subjects, but also admirable as a portrait painter; John Sargent (18 56-), whose brilliant and vigorous characterization of his sitters leaves him without a rival; as Well as Ouless, Shannon, Fildes, Herkomer and others, have worthily carried on the best traditions of the art.

In France contemporary portraiture is ably represented in the works of Carolus-Duran, Bonnat and Benjamin Constant, and in Germany by Lenbach, who has handed down to posterity with uncompromising faithfulness the form and features of Prince Bismarck.

Of portraiture in its other developments little need be said. Miniature painting, which grew out of the work of the illuminator, appears to have been always successfully practised in England.. The works of Hilliard, Isaac and Peter Oliver, Samuel Cooper, Hoskins, Engleheart, Plimer and Cosway hold their own with the best of the kind; but this beautiful art, like that of the engraver, has been largely superseded by photography and the “ processes ” now in use.

It is unnecessary to refer to the many uses of portraiture, but one of its chiefest has been to transmit to posterity the form and features of those who have played a part, worthy or otherwise, in the past history of our race. 0f its value to the II biographer and historian, Carlyle, in a letter written in 1854, says, “In all my poor historical investigations it is one of the most primary wants to procure a bodily likeness of the personage inquired after; a good portrait, if such exists; failing that, even an indifferent, if sincere one; in short, any representation, made by a faithful human creature, of that face and figure which he saw with his eyes and which I can never see with mine. Often I have found the portrait superior in real instruction to half-a-dozen written biographies, or rather, I have found the portrait was as a small lighted candle, by which the biographies could for the first time be read, and some human interpretation be made of them.”  (G. Re.)