Portrait PosesAs a portrait artist, I've had three or four portraits that have always been my favourites. In each case, it's not just the portrait face that appeals to me but also the pose. Second only to the face itself - the likeness - there is nothing else in a portrait more important than the pose. It basically defines the entire composition of the painting. To my way of thinking, even the lighting is less important than what we might call the second half of a portrait - the body below the chin. Whether we realise it or not, when we notice someone, we usually see the whole body before we see the face. Then the eyes captivate us. Is the individual making eye contact? Following that we notice the expression, gauging what kind of mood the person is in. Then we move back to the body and read the body language - all of this in no more than a second or two sometimes.
Even as early as the Hellenic period in Greek art, painters recognised the need to capture the "soul" of the individual, what we'd today call "character." However, up until the Renaissance, the favoured pose for portraiture was the profile. And, while this was a simple means of capturing a likeness, it had two deficiencies. First, it could utilised only half the face in doing so, and second, there was no way for the subject to engage the viewer. Eye contact was impossible. The three-quarter view first became popular in the Netherlands during the early fifteenth century but in Italy, it was not until artists such as Leonard, da Messina, Botticelli, and Raphael adopted this pose that the face and body began to directly address the viewer. And Raphael's Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione painted in 1514, is one of my favourites. Though the figure is clothed in the richness of Renaissance garb, the painting is as engaging and timeless as one painted in any century since.
A second favourite of mine is one by Jean-Auguste Ingres, certainly the best French portrait painter of the nineteenth century. And, while any number of his female portraits may be more exquisite and fascinating in detail, none can compete with the attention-grabbing power of his portrait of Louis-Francois Bertin, painted in 1833. Legend has it that Ingres struggled mightily to discover a pose that captured the essence of the powerful newspaper publisher. A robust, portly, eloquent, highly intelligent individual, Ingres is said to have been near tears in his frustration in deciding how to handle this mighty figure. Then, as if in an epiphany, Ingres caught a glimpse of the man, arguing vehemently with a fellow writer, just as Bertin leaned forward, both hands on his knees, as if about to get up and more than verbally assault the individual. And it is this tensely dynamic pose; coupled with the steady glare of the man's eyes that makes this portrait so unforgettable.
Besides these, two female portraits, both quite different, but sharing a common trait, have also long intrigued me. Despite what I just said about engaging the viewer, neither of these figures does so directly. There is no eye contact. In Thomas Eakins' Miss Amelia van Buren painted in 1891, the artist captures his subject, her head resting against her left hand while gazing off to the right in the direction of the light source. She is typically attired for the late Victorian period, sitting in a grand "throne" of a chair Eakins used several times for his portraits. But, despite the reserved, detached nature of the pose, the figure, in her quiet contemplation, needs no eye contact to draw us into her thoughts, her warmth, and her quiet personality.
By contrast, John Singer Sargent's Madame X, portraying the American socialite, Madame Pierre Gautreau (she was married to a Frenchman) harkens back to the ancient profile portraits for its pose. In fact, with her stylishly pale (some would say, pasty) complexion, she seems almost to be a statue of a Greek goddess. Her strong nose, juxtaposed with her otherwise quite delicate features, is more than enough to entrance the viewer. We see too a woman very much aware of her beauty and used to projecting both it and her captivating personality in such a way as to dominate those around her, just as she does in the portrait in any room in which it might hang. Sargent considered this his greatest work. However, Mrs. Gautreau, her husband, and the French critics considered it scandalously daring, so much so that Sargent found it best to leave Paris and take up residence in London for the remainder of his life (hence its popular title). Sometimes, I guess, a portrait can be just too engaging.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
10 September 2001