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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Origin of the Portrait

Nefertiti, 1300 BCE
Some time ago I mentioned one of the axiomatic rules having to do with art. That is, artists have always tended to paint or sculpt that which is most important to them. I pointed out that man's earliest works, as seen in surviving prehistoric art, reflected the relative importance of two topics in his life - sports and sex. As any "football widow" will tell you, not much has changed in 20,000 years. Dating almost that far back we find a few other extremely ancient art content areas, one being superstition and primitive religious images, another being representations of human figures - God and man. These too have persisted into contemporary art, though, in recent years, the prevalence of religious art seems to have waned to an even greater degree than religion itself. Or, perhaps it is just that we have so internalized our faith in a supreme being that we no longer need religious images as we once did.

Alexander the Great coin bust, 320 BCE
Primitive figural art first evolved into portraiture, in its earliest surviving form, probably in ancient Egypt. Though much Egyptian figural art is formalized and stylized, the sculpted bust of Nefertiti, dating from 1348 BCE (top left), is so remarkably realistic we can only make the relatively safe assumption that it was also a portrait likeness. Several other pieces from the same period bear similar traits. But such portrait likenesses in Egyptian art were but brief flares of genius. It was another thousand years before Greek sculpture reached such heights of representational audacity as to approach our modern day definition of portraiture. And, even at that, as I mentioned a few days ago, so much regarding portraiture depends upon our definition of the term. Is the image of Alexander the Great on a Greek drachma coin dating from 320 BCE (above) an actual likeness, or merely a symbolic one? Although we have no way of knowing whether the Greeks mastered the art of portraying sculpted or painted likeness, those of their Roman predecessors are so individualistic and naturalistic as to make such judgements much more certain.

Emperor Lothair I (detail), 849 CE,
grandson of Charlemagne
But just as the fall of the Roman Empire set western civilization back a thousand years, the same must be said of the art of portraiture as well. The Imperial portrait of the Emperor Lothair I, dating from 849 CE (left), while impressive in its detail, is, in its own way, nearly as stylised and symbolic as those of ancient Egypt. Even as late as 1317, we see in the religious paintings of Italian artist Simone Martini, especially in his donor portraits, much of the same stiff, stylized rendering and only the barest suggestion that his static profiles might bear some actual resemblance to his patrons. Yet as little as 43 years later, an unknown artist (probably of Italian origin) painted a profile portrait of King John II of France (below, right) so strikingly individualized and accurate in its facial anatomy that we might consider it the first true portrait likeness of any consequence since Roman times.

King John II of France, 1350
Strangely, considering the many hundreds of years in which the painting of portraits languished in ineptitude, once artists began to again seriously study the human face and strive to reproduce its anatomical similarities as well as its individual differences in paint, the movement to modern day, highly characteristic portraiture was amazingly rapid. In little more than a hundred years after the unknown artist captured the likeness of King John II, Robert Campin in the Netherlands was routinely turning out subtle, three-quarter view portraits as accurate as any we might find today, and not just of kings and noblemen, but those of such middle-class individuals that their likenesses have survived long after their names have been forgotten. And while the importance of religious art may have waned in modern times, portraiture has become so vital to our daily lives that we must carry such likenesses with us to drive a car, to cash a check, or to, in many cases now, report to work.
Portrait of a Man, 1430, Robert Campin
Portrait of a Woman, 1430, Robert Campin

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