As portraits go, we don't see them much anymore. Few homes, even the largest ones, lend themselves to the tremendous ceiling height and wall space needed to hang a full-length, life-size, standing portrait. In any case, they would seem embarrassingly pretentious in a modern setting. And today, certainly in the case of male figures, and only slightly less so where women are concerned, modern dress does not embrace the flamboyance of style and fabric to warrant so much square footage of portraiture. Even the largest portraits today are seldom more than half-length unless the figure is sitting and even then the view is often cut off just below the knees. Anything more than that becomes something more akin to a figure study and in any case is seldom rendered life-size.
But...there was a time...back in the good old days when kings were kings and image was everything, when a man's (or woman's) worth was determined by how grand and glorious the portrait artist could render their face, figure, and frock, when money was no object, when wealth and royalty brazenly competed for prestige, when what we might call the "swagger" portrait was an absolute necessity. Sir Anthony van Dyck, back in the 1600s, if he didn't invent the genre, certainly wrote the rules. The size was seldom less than seven feet in height, usually more like eight or nine. The pose was formal but relaxed. Eye contact was a must. Opulent surroundings were to be preferred, if not actually demanded. Certainly elaborate dress, shiny fabrics, lace, furs, ribbons, buttons, and bows, regardless of sex, were to be expected. And whatever the accessories, the painting had to have a powerful, direct, dramatic impact on the viewer. Subtlety was nowhere to be found.
Titian, Holbein, Cranach, and others were among the first to venture into this most grandiose of the painter's arts during the sixteenth century, and van Dyck drew from their early experiments. But it was van Dyck's public relations portraits of the homely Charles I and his wife, Henrietta Maria, which set the model for not just English artists (van Dyck was Dutch), but for similar artists and their royal patrons all over Europe. Hyacinthe Rigaud's 1701 portrait of Louis XIV owes much to van Dyck's style. The shapely legs, the heavy, carpet-size, ermine-lined robe, and the "rug" of a wig on his head, the red, strapless pumps, the billowing drapery overhead, and the fleur-de-lis all over the place, lend a silly, comical look to the work today, but three hundred years ago, it probably bought the House of Bourbon an extra century on the French throne.
Though Thomas Gainsborough was of a different century, the impact of van Dyck's style still dominated English portraiture, though by now it was no longer reserved for kings and queens. Any commoner with a few hundred pounds to spare could be made to look like royalty. Gainsborough even went so far as to maintain a closet full of hundred-year-old garments in case his wealthy portrait clients didn't have anything appropriately shiny in their own wardrobe. His most famous portrait of this type, Jonathan Buttall, owes its title and dramatic impact to just such foresight. Today we know it more commonly as Blue Boy. Jonathan was not royalty, nor even rich, though thanks to Gainsborough's clothes, pose, and mastery of the medium, it would be hard to tell. In fact, Blue Boy was not a portrait commission at all, but apparently done for the artist's own amusement. The strikingly attractive, fourteen-year-old boy, later one of the few invited to the Gainsborough's funeral, was the son of a friend and neighbour, an iron monger (that means he owned a junkyard).
One of America's most famous portrait artists, Gilbert Stuart, is best known for the full-length portrait of Washington (a mediocre work at best). That's the one Dolly Madison rescued from the White House in 1814 just before it burned. But Stuart first came to prominence in 1782 while studying and practising his art in London. It was there that he was commissioned by a wealthy Scottish lawyer, William Grant, to paint his first full-length portrait. In reporting for his first setting, Grant commented that the weather was much better suited to skating than posing, so on a whim, artist and client set up shop on Serpentine Lake in Kennsington Gardens. Stuart's The Skater, a strong, dynamic depiction of what seems to have been an equally strong and dynamic attorney, added the element of action to van Dyck's centuries old portrait formula. Who knows, if our first president had been a good ice skater, perhaps we might not today have such a top-heavy portrait of him staring down at us from the wall of the elegant East Room of the White House.