There's a common misconception among portrait painters now, and in the past, that a simple background, or even no background at all, places the entire emphasis in the portrait upon the setter and thus leads to a better portrait. And while the emphasis part may be true, the fact is, it doesn't necessarily follow that minimising the background leads to better portraiture. What it leads to is easier, quicker, and cheaper portraiture. From Leonardo to Gilbert Stuart we see this element in play. And while the portrait itself, whether Washington or Mona Lisa, may be much admired, the paintings themselves tells us little about the subject except for his or her facial features. And when you think about it, as art, that sells the portrait far short of its potential to convey the meaning and character of the individual depicted.
Perhaps one of the earliest and greatest portraits to make the most of its setting as a means of illustrating the life and times of its subjects was the Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife by Jan van Eyck, painted in 1434. Though there is some debate over how much of the setting may be symbolic as opposed to the simple, natural surroundings of the couple, we see both wealth and stature, as well as an indication of the warm, love, and respect the newlywed couple have for one another. We could argue endlessly as to whether the tiny dog in the foreground is a symbol of marital fidelity or simply a family pet, perhaps both, but in either case it adds warmth and interest to the painting while its size and low contrast rendering, in no way detracts from the portrait. The impression the artist and his subjects wished to leave was one of wealth, warmth, religious faith, and their love for one another. The faces occupy less than five percent of the painting's surface, but through the masterful handling of all the other elements in the work, van Eyck was able to imbue them with the power to capture and hold the viewer's attention against the myriad of details telling the story of their lives together.
The same can be see in the landscape portrait setting chosen by Thomas Gainsborough and no doubt his patrons, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, painted around 1748. Without knowing that Mr. Andrew was a wealthy landowner, we see it in the portrait, fully half of which is devoted to depicting part of the three-thousand acre estate he and his wife united with their marriage. Through their elegant clothes, the hunting dog and rifle, and the rich colours of the landscape, we gain an important understanding of the who, what, when, and where of this couple that would have been visually lost forever with a simple or non-existent background.
Hans Holbein's portrait of the German merchant, Georg Gisze (painted in London around 1532) pictures him completely surrounded by the daily items of his office, books, letters, pen, ink, a virtual clutter of exquisite draughtsmanship and painting technique bearing an incredible amount of realistic detail juxtaposed next to a strong face with searing eyes, prominent nose, and firm jaw. Yet we're conscious of the setting only after we take in all of the best the portrait painter has to offer in depicting the figure.
More recently, Mary Cassatt's Portrait of Madame J, painted around 1883, was criticised at the time for its background of colour and detail enveloping her stylish figure dressed in black. In this case, likely set in the artist's studio, the background seems to have little to do with the subject, but given the fact that she may well have been in mourning, it would seem to be an absolute necessity needed to rescue her from the oblivion of nothingness that a plain and simple background would have entailed. Whether its characteristic clothes, a uniform, or an entire room, the portrait artist who can manage more than merely capturing a facial likeness, who can manage other elements capable of telling a story about his subject without losing his figure in the melange, is the master painter, not merely a portraitist.