A Timeless Snapshot - The Tradition of the Official Portrait
This week as the official Obama portraits are unveiled at their new home at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. we look at how some of the most influential figures in history are captured and reflected through the portraits that commemorate them.
At left, the portrait of Mr. Obama by Kehinde Wiley, and the portrait of Mrs. Obama by Amy Sherald (Images Courtesy ofThe New York Times)
Former president Barack Obama’s portrait by contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley drew strong reactions from all sides. From praise for the artist’s decision to explore new visions of black masculinity to criticism of the use of an uncommon setting of dense, lush vegetation for a presidential portrait. The two artworks certainly represent a break from the traditional, prescriptive model of official portraiture where artists usually seek to present an image that is also a statement, employing not so subtle cues and symbols in a clear, direct message to the public.
When it comes to portraiture, there is much more at stake than just capturing a likeness. Before photography, portraits were the only means available for those who could afford it to preserve an individual’s visual record, and in Western culture were utilized as a political tool to both bolster the public image of the aristocracy as well as conduct delicate matters of courtship and marriage. The earliest portraits followed idealized artistic conventions, the extent of which are difficult to assess seeing as such portraits are often the only remaining record of the individual presented. Numerous traditions of portraiture flourished over time, most notably in Ancient Greece and Rome where portrait busts often depicted individual likenesses to an exacting degree.
Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps, Versailles Version, 1802 (Image courtesy of WikiCommons)
In terms of official Western portraiture, there is no better Classical example than Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps. There were no less than five versions of this painting created by the darling of Napoleon’s court. Though commemorative in nature, the painting itself was a blatant form of propaganda - Napoleon’s calmness of expression, his dominant posture and seated pose that allowed his famous short stature to be hidden, as well as the names of the great conquerors Hannibal and Charlemagne carved into the rocks in the foreground - all served to drive the point home.
Graham Sutherland,Winston Churchill, 1954 (Image courtesy of WikiCommons)
The power that portraits hold as tools of visual exchange of information cannot be understated, as they also hold the potential to cause harm, as in the case of young Anne of Cleaves, the fourth wife of King Henry VIII. Her official portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger facilitated a proposal for marriage from Henry VIII. However, upon seeing his bride for the first time, the king felt he was misled by the painting, and did everything in his power to annul the marriage, or else have her beheaded as most of his wives. In another such case, Graham Sutherland’s official portrait of Winston Churchill was so reviled by the sitter due to its emphasis on realism rather than idealization, that Lady Churchill had it burned in secret.
Hans Holbrein the Younger,Anne of Cleaves, c. 1539 (Image courtesy of WikiCommons)
As evidenced by the latest addition to the National Portrait Gallery, the painted portrait is both a storied tradition as well as an important part of our current cultural heritage. It also represents our own history in the making, as it captures a likeness in a way that photography never can. Through the relationship between artist and sitter, in an image that is created in numerous sittings over an extended period of time, the portrait provides a collaged perspective that goes beyond simple representation.
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