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Monday, December 3, 2012

Rulers' Portraits

Richard II of England, ca. 1395
As a portrait painter, I naturally study a lot of portraits. In doing so, the one thought that keeps recurring is how different is the demand for portraits today, and how different are the demands upon the portrait painter today than in the past. In the "good old days," before the invention of photography, the status of the portrait painter was one of prestige near the top of the artist's profession. Even today, it's considered possibly the most demanding type of work in which an artist can engage. Ironically, the invention of photography, while making the work of the portrait painter less in demand, has also made it somewhat less demanding as well. In the past, from miniatures (equivalent to today's wallet-size photos) to magnificent equestrian portraits, the portrait painter was all but indispensable. And nowhere was this more the case than in the great seats of power--the royal courts.

The royal found their subjects more likely to be loyal if they could picture what their ruler looked like. Perhaps the earliest royal portrait existing today is the (much-restored) medieval image of England's Richard II (above, left), which was painted around 1395. It depicts a fairly young king, who was, in fact, not very secure on his throne, but who, nonetheless, projected a very kingly presence--bearing crown, orb, and sceptre amidst rich, red and white robes. But apparently all this, not to mention enough gold leaf to start a small mint, was not enough to keep him on his stylised Gothic throne. He was put to death just a few years after the portrait was done.

Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, 1548, Titian
Bonaparte Crossing the Alps, 1801,
Jacques-Louis David's official version.
Bonaparte Crossing the Alps, 1848,
Paul Delaroche, how it really happened.
Much more impressive is Titian's magnificent equestrian portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (above, large) painted in 1548. The effect was very much intended to revive the glories of the Roman Empire and the painting seems to have been patterned after the famous equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. This work underscores the importance of propaganda in the depiction of kings and rulers. He carries a long, Roman spear and wears the armour in which he fought in his greatest victory, the Battle of Muhlberg the year before over the German Protestant princes. This painting, in turn, was to serve as a thematic model for Jacques-Louis David's extremely propagandistic Bonaparte Crossing the Alps (above, right) painted in 1801. It portrays the French leader (not yet an emperor) melodramatically astride his rearing steed, red robe flowing majestically in the wind, pointing the way for his army to follow him over the Alps on his way to conquering Austria. In fact, Bonaparte crossed the Alps some three days behind his army while riding a mule as depicted more accurately some fifty years later by Paul Delaroche (above, left). On the rocks at the base of David's painting is carved "Bonaparte" along side the names of Hannibal and Charlemagne, who had also led armies across the Alps. The original painting was done for Spain's royal palace while four copies went to France where their idealized vision of an idealized leader was instrumental in Napoleon's rise to First Consul of France and finally emperor.

George Washington (Athenaeum Portrait)
1796, Gilbert Stuart

But not all leaders wanted or needed artist to glorify them to the point of deification. Although George Washington was, at times, depicted as a general, the more familiar portraits by Gilbert Stuart depict him more in line with his favored role as a well-to-do Virginia planter. Stuart's final portrait of Washington (there were three attempts) is the famous unfinished Athenaeum painted in 1796 (long since cut down). Despite a very modest pose, the painting was still to play an important function in the Washington legend mill. It's the basis for his likeness on the one-dollar bill and exists in some 72 copies by Stuart himself, as well as countless others by lesser artists.

Windsor Castle in Modern Times, 1845, Edwin Landseer, humanizing the ruler.
And across the sea, Edwin Landseer was Queen Victoria's choice to paint a warm family portrait even though the artist was primarily famous as an animal painter. However, given the menagerie of royal pets depicted in Windsor Castle in Modern Times, from 1845, he may have been a good choice. Though set in baronial splendour, this interior scene bears no crowns, no robes, not even eye contact with the viewer as Victoria and Albert preside, not over a kingdom, but a return from the hunt. It's a domestic scene not aimed at glorifying the royal image but in humanizing it. Yet even if not blatant propaganda, it still stands as an example of subtle image making very much akin to that we see when feature photographers are today invited into the private quarters of the White House to polish the image of the man, in place of the politician.
Replacing the portrait painter today, the official photographer is never
far away, whether recording history or humanizing those making it
(not to mention the Easter Bunny).

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