The "Realist" Portrait

Much of Western portraiture today stresses visual objectivity, a fierce attention to detail and a de-emphasis on pose or unique contexts. Take, for example, in our dominant contemporary medium for the portrait—photography—the works of Rineke Dijkstra, Thomas Struth, Taryn Simon, Thomas Ruff or Amy ElkinsAdam (Full Back), Princeton, NJ. In brief, the figure is characteristically presented as plainly and as “objectively” as possible. All aspects of the sitters’ appearance are in sharp focus. As well, the background and the specifics of clothing seem to be of little concern.

How did we get here? Within the history of photography, many cite German photographer August Sander (1876-1964), best known for his Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts, a project which focused on creating a portrait of society through pictures of the different types of contemporary men and women. Yet where do we find ourselves if we look further back, prior to the advent of photography, within the history of the painted portrait?

Before the rise of abstraction and among art-historical periods and movements emphasizing a more expressive, emotional treatment of the figure (Romanticism and Rococo, to mention two examples), one could cite the work of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and then before him Jacques-Louis David, and then Agnolo Bronzino

Bronzino, who Ingres and David both acknowledged as an influence (as did Frida Kahlo, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse), was a dominant force in the Florence art world from the 1530s to the 1560s, and until recently, was primarily known for his portraiture. 

The work on the right, recently attributed to the artist, features a Florentine intellectual between 20 and 30 years old. (Bronzino mostly painted poets, musicians, and men of letters—not well-known is that he was also a poet.) Bronzino’s sitter appears taken by an idea and judging from the position of his pen, may be just finishing writing something or just about to start. His book is proof of an active mind. Many pages of notes are written and crossed out, and from the position of his hand and the condition of his book it seems he refers to his notes regularly. 

Bronzino’s work isn’t a far cry from our contemporary portraits. His line is highly exact; there are no unnecessary details; there is little sense of human communication or emotion and there is what has been referred to as a “fixity” to his sitter. Where does one trace the line of such exacting portraiture before Bronzino? Jacopo Pontormo, his teacher; and then maybe to Titian, Raphael, Leonardo, Hans Holbein, Jan Van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden

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