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Is it a Portrait?
Let me ask you a question. When is a portrait not a portrait? In 1476, the Early Renaissance artist, Sandro Botticelli painted his famous Adoration of the Magi. The scene is set in a makeshift stable amid a backdrop of Roman ruins, the holy family seated high in the painting, while all around, approximately two dozen figures worship the new-born child. Tradition has it that Botticelli himself occupies the far right, while one of the magi bears the likeness of Cosimo de' Medici, another, that of his grandson, Lorenzo "The Magnificent." On numerous other figures are seen the faces of other Medici family members. Is this a portrait? Cosimo had been dead for ten years when the painting was done. The de' Medici were more than mere models, and their faces were well known by viewers seeing the painting for the first time. Could we say it was a group portrait at one time but no longer is because the faces and figures are now mostly speculation? Or was this not portraiture but merely a means by which the artist flattered his friends and patrons by asking them to stand in for his biblical characters?

In 1537, the Venetian painter, Titian, was commissioned by Francesco Maria della Rovere, the Duke of Urbino, to paint Portrait of a Noblewoman (La Bella). It is a painting of a woman of great beauty who, even then, was probably unknown to the duke. Inasmuch as Titian painted her numerous other times, often as a nude, it's quite likely she was, in fact, a prostitute. It's a lavish image, easily appearing to be that of a queen, a princess, or a duchess. Was this a portrait? In a similar mode, Rembrandt, in 1632 painted A Man in Oriental Dress: 'The Noble Slav'. It appears to be the portrait of a Turkish potentate, richly robed, wearing a turban and striking a distinctly noble pose, though actually it bears the likeness of a Dutchman, very possibly Rembrandt's father, whom he often used as a model. Was this a portrait?

Edgar Degas, in 1875 painted Place de La Concorde, (The Viscount Lepic and his Daughters). The painting depicts a Parisian street scene, the vast centre of which is largely deserted, while an unknown figure, severely cropped, occupies the far left. The Viscount, his daughters, and their dog seem almost incidental, even accidental to the scene. Like so many of Degas' works, the composition suggests a snapshot, and not a very well composed one at that. Yet, there is a certain energetic balance to the painting that is as intriguing as it is disconcerting. Even though the figures in the painting are well known and well documented and the work was actually purchased by the Viscount and remained in his family for decades afterwards, was this a portrait?

In 1906, Pablo Picasso painted his familiar Portrait of Gertrude Stein. It would be putting it kindly to say it doesn't look much like her (kind to both artist and model in that Gertrude was no great beauty). In fact, Picasso sat down and painted her "out of his head" after having earlier struggled through numerous settings with his friend and patron. She resembles a primitive Iberian sculpture Picasso had seen on a trip back home. When people complained it didn't look at all like Miss Stein, Picasso told them, "Never mind, in the end she will look just like it." He was right. He had captured her essence while ignoring her likeness. And to this day, when people think of Gertrude Stein, they think of Picasso's image of her. Was this a portrait? There is no one answer in all of these instances because it all depends upon your definition of what is a portrait. If you have no other criteria than that of a painting bearing a physical likeness to an individual, then all but Gertrude's are portraits. If you demand to know the names of the individuals depicted, then only the Viscount's and Miss Stein's are portraits. But if you demand the artist having been commissioned to render the likeness and/or character of an individual, then perhaps all are portraits. Even if we divine the purpose for which the artist rendered each painting we're still left to ponder the question in several instances. Was it shrewd politics or merely convenience that the de' Medici are seen transposed back 1500 years to the birth of Christ? Were the commissioned paintings by Titian and Rembrandt simply generic figural paintings or insightful portraits? Can an artist paint a portrait then demand that the subject become like his image? Any portrait painter will tell you this, in fact, happens, though perhaps not to the degree Picasso demanded. There is nothing simple about painting portraits...or even defining them.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
21 September 2001

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