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26 June, 2013
Portrait Expressions
A few days ago, as I was writing about portrait poses, I mentioned they were second only to the likeness in terms of importance to the overall painting. It occurred to me only afterwards that, in discussing the second most important factor, I'd never said much regarding the most important part of the portrait. Of course there are several different elements having too do with a portrait likeness. It's much too broad a subject to be dealt with in one ArtyFact. But briefly, it has to do with the shape of the head and the size, shape, and placement of the major features. While all these have traditionally been referred to as the "portrait likeness," I think we might better call them the portrait "expression" in that the artist should ideally seek to go beyond merely getting the head and features' size, shape, and proportional relationships right. The ideal would be that they all merge into a single, highly characteristic expression.

Antonello da Messina is credited with bringing oil painting to Italy from the Netherlands during the second half of the fifteenth century. But beyond that, he also brought to Italy a whole new way of looking at portraiture. Up until that time, Italian portrait painting was still operating in what could only be called a Roman style (profiles), unchanged for so long that it really dated back to the Hellenic era of Greek painting, refined, but not all that different from what we'd find on Greek ceramic vessels. What da Messina did was to introduce, with the art of oil painting, the three-quarter view of the head, one far more natural and variable than anything that had gone before in Italian portraiture. His Portrait of a Man, dating from around 1470, is said to be the earliest of this new type of portraiture in Italian art. The face is simple, engaging (with eye contact), and bears a slight smile. We don't know the personality of the figure, of course, but thanks to da Messina's northern influences, it's not hard to imagine.

And speaking of smiles, perhaps the most eloquent statement of expression in Italian portraiture is Leonardo's Mona Lisa painted between 1503 and 1506. The portrait is believed to be that of the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. It was first written about some fifty years after completion, and even then the famous, mysterious, intriguing smile was the subject of comment. Legends abound regarding it. Some say Leonardo kept musicians playing to amuse the sitter as he painted. Others have suggested it is, in fact a self-portrait, while others have assigned a strictly geometric origin (the smile being the base of a circle which includes the edge of her hair net at the top and the outer extremities of her hair on the left and hairline on the right). Whatever the case, it is a most remarkable effort in capturing a characteristic expression. Yet still, in not knowing the lady from other sources, it's hard to say just how accurate it might be in capturing either her true expression or her character.

However this is not the case with regard to the famous Portrait of Pope Innocent X painted by Velázquez in 1650. Much is known about the pope's relatively unattractive face, not to mention his disposition and personality. And here, from pose to clothes, to nose, Velázquez had nailed the man. Faced with a face said by one writer to be "...the most deformed ever born among men," Velázquez makes no attempt to hide its shortcomings but, instead, makes use of them in emphasising the pope's strong, penetrating gaze, large nose, and slightly lopsided mouth. The portrait is probably the most memorable, also perhaps the most intimidating, to come out of the seventeenth century.

As we look at portraits from the more recent past, it's not surprising that the Expressionists were quite adept at capturing expressions. And here the German Expressionists in particular excelled most notably. Oscar Kokoschka's Joseph de Montesquiou-Fezensac, from 1911, shows us a portrait of degeneracy - a slender, middle-aged man with a bulging forehead, receding hairline, delicate handlebar moustache, large eyes, an overbite, and a starched high collar within an angular rumpled suit. The portrait stops just short of being a caricature. Obviously not a paid commission, Kokoschka's painting exaggerates the man's most prominent features as well as his reported personal attributes to portray an inbred, aristocratic snob where neither the sitter nor the artist's portrayal of him is in any way attractive. Whereas most portrait artists make at least a feeble attempt to flatter their sitter, Kokoschka goes out of his way to do just the opposite. It's a good thing he never painted Innocent X. By the way, the English artist, Francis Bacon, did do just such a painting in 1961 (based upon the Velázquez portrait). Believe me, it's not a pretty picture.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
12 September 2001

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