Even though I've written and studied art for something more than thirty years, I'd have to say that, while I know a lot about a lot of art, I'm expert on very little of it. My knowledge of art, perhaps because of my teaching background, is rather broad instead of deep. However, even though I'm by no means an expert on portraiture, especially in a technical sense, my understanding of this one area does go a little deeper than most of my other art interests. As with so many things, the more I study the subject, the more fascinating it becomes. Not too long ago, I would have had little awareness of how many different types of portraits there are. But during the past few months, in no particular order, I've gone into some detail in discussing very many of them - group portraits, abstract portraits, royal portraits, self-portraits, swagger portraits - as well as portrait poses, expressions, and settings. This time, I'd like to spend some time on what I call the "intimate portrait."
Yesterday, in discussing royal portraits, I mentioned Edwin Landseer's Windsor Castle in Modern Times. Even though we know it depicts royalty, because of the title and perhaps the recognisable likenesses of Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, in terms of portrait type, it is very much what was called at the time a "conversation piece." Today the term has devolved into one meaning any unusual knickknack sitting around catching dust, serving no other purpose but to look pretty and perhaps fill a gap in friendly conversation, or to start one. But, in nineteenth century England particularly, the term had a much more limited meaning - a family portrait in which the viewer is ignored by the group in favour of individual or group activities or interaction of some sort. That's very much the case in Landseer's intimate portrayal of family life within the hallowed walls of Windsor Castle. A one-year-old Princess Victoria inspects the game her father has just brought home from the hunt, while four different breeds of dogs divide their attention between their master and their prey. The very refined, yet thoroughly manly, Albert appears to recount the adventures of the hunt to his wife amid on opulent setting of carefully contrived informality.
Johann Zoffany may not have invented conversation piece portraiture (Phillip Mercier and William Hogarth probably did) but his work, as seen in The Bradshaw Family of 1769, certainly marks him as a skilled, leading proponent of this genre. The German artist, who spent most of his working life in London and also painted the royal family, depicts a very wealthy and distinguished Thomas Bradshaw, First Lord of the Admiralty, at the apex of a line of diagonal heads, holding a daughter on his knee while watching a young son to his right fly a kite. His wife beckons the daughter into her arms while Bradshaw's elder sister holds yet another daughter. An older son casually rests his arm on the back of a pony. As informal as it may appear, the work is very carefully contrived, both in composition and in the image of family harmony it seeks to project to the viewer.
However, not all such family portraits are quite so "formal" in their informal intimacy. The American painter, John Singleton Copley's The Copley Family, painted in 1776, is an even more intimate conversation piece featuring himself, his wife, their four daughters, and his father-in-law. There seems to be a genuine, playful affection displayed as the girls cling lovingly to their mother and grandfather. Only Copley himself and his eldest daughter seem detached from the scene, staring out at the viewer instead. And not all intimate portraits are necessarily group portraits. Rembrandt's Portrait of Titus at his Desk from 1655 warmly depicts the artist's fourteen-year-old son (he looks much younger) gazing off into space, his mind obviously not on his studies. And, though radically different in appearance, Lucian Freud's The Painter's Mother Resting Ill, painted in 1977, is just as intimately telling and brutally honest. She bears the same vacant stare as Titus though her face is as ravaged by time as his is sweetly innocent. Yet each expression of love on the part of the artists is equally intense and insightful. Though centuries apart in origin, these two are much more in keeping with our modern understanding of the term, "conversation piece."
contributed by Lane, Jim
14 September 2001