Monday, April 23, 2007


One problem with a lot of modern portrait paintings is that they're too specific. Even a realistic portrait should be somewhat iconic. The picture above isn't a picture of of eternal beauty, it's too specifically a painting of Beulah J. Kratz (or whatever her name is). The same problem holds for the other three Lovis Corinth pictures immediately below.

Actually, this one of the nude holding the hairbrush isn't half bad.

I don't mean to say that all potraits should be sanitized and idealized. Not at all. But the more specific the picture is the more the style should be iconic, cartoony or deliberately mannered. The picture above by Otto Dix is a good example. It's very specific but it's cartoony and it works.

More realistic portraits are better off idealized somewhat like the pictures immediately above and below. They're by Raphael (above) and Rubens (below). You accept them as realistic but they're subtley stylized as well.

Do you agree?


Pat McMicheal said...

Eddie, The portraits I draw have been described as BOTH realistic and stylized...even cartoony. And they are EXTREMELY detailed and focused.
From reading this post, I draw the qualities you dislike as well as admire....what an enigma!
example 1
example 2

Chloe Cumming said...

Hi Eddie... I think I probably do agree with you, but I'm sot sure I could fully explain this phenomenon.

There are a lot of portraits now that are sort of soulless excercises in wrinkly realism. Like painters doing the job of digital cameras.

And there may be some more dimension to that which you call 'iconic'... I get the sense every time I paint something that the painting itself has to take on a life, that comes from somewhere archetypal, and stands for more than just one person in one horizontal moment. Something has to 'happen' or 'move' in the painting to justify its existence.

Is that a poncy answer?

I had to explain the word 'poncy' to an American the other day.

Chloe Cumming said...

I think maybe I hesitated in saying that I fully agree because I'd never shy away from making a likeness specific, or I'd certainly never BLANDIFY features... but that's not really what you were suggesting.

I suppose this is why caricature is such a fascinating art... you use the specifics of a face but make something iconic and with its own integrity.

Rembrandt painted lumpen specific faces, but to my eyes he always invested them with a sort of touchingly imperfect soul-beauty that's 'intelligible' in a similar way to how the joy in great cartoons is.

I suppose if any squeak of 'soul' comes through, you've done something right, despite specificness or iconicness.

Now I am being poncy.

Nate said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nate said...

I think you are on to something here. The examples you picked aren't the worst offenders, though. Take a gander at these, done in the hyper realistic style taught at certain "Beaux Art" academies:

Why not just take a photograph? There is nothing iconic at all, just a slavish attempt to render detail with some scumbled edges to make it look "painterly".

The most iconic portrait of all is the Mona Lisa, and her features are very abstract. Somewhat less abstracted is Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earing. Sargent's Madame X gets more specific but wow what a painting. Then you look at moderns like Kathe Kollwitz and Lucian Freud and they do individuals, not ideals. Look at Freud's self portrait:

It's not cartoony and only slightly mannered but it still seems like a real work of art.

Kris said...

I have to say that there is something a little uncomfortable about photorealistic portraits. It's an image really going unfiltered from the artist's eyes to the canvas. I think the artist has to do a little extra, add a little of their own interpretation, sure.

That said, I like the specific faces in the portraits you didn't like. I can actually get an idea of the specific personalities of these ladies, which is a lot more interesting (to me anyway) than looking at an icon of eternal beauty.

Anonymous said...

Art is selection. Nothing is wrong with rendering unless the artist is slavishly copying a photograph without some real degree of creative selection.

Lester Hunt said...


I am strongly inclined to agree with you. The one thing I would add is that, if what you are saying about portraits is true, wouldn't the same thing be true of all pictorial art? After all, the one sort of picture that is generally supposed to be a "good likeness" is a portrait. If portraits should be somewhat stylized, then everything should.

(Of course, I am excepting pictures that are not supposed to be art -- eg., scientific illustration. Maybe that sort of picture should be totally specific. But that whould be due to its non-artistic function.)

Kent B said...

Check out Nina Mae McKinney singing with Curtis Mosby and his Blues Blowers in King Vidor's "Hallelujah" 1929

There's nothing generic about her performance!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Pat, Nate, Lester: I'm beginning to realize that there are a lot of exceptions to what I said.

Kent: Wow! Interesting video! Thanks!

Chloe: Yes, that's it! You want to be able to comment on life in a general way at the same time you're painting a specific person.

Kali Fontecchio said...

I agree and disagree, sort of, I think. All portraits should (and usually do) have a bit of the artist's face or personality mixed in them, along with being the person they're actually painting. It's the artist fusing their image and point of view with their subject that makes it iconic. Painting what they see, yes, but also making it fit their view of the world, etc.

That's why I really enjoy Renaissance paintings, and later on French Impressionism, like Renior etc. Gustav Klimt is high on my list too, of amazing portraiture painters. Here's one!

Anonymous said...

I can't say I've enjoyed many portraits since Sargeant, but here is how I would have attacked Beulah Kratz, who probably wanted the frou frou rapahelite get up as representing herself as she saw herself, perhaps even, as she was.

But I would have done a low key portrait of her. Dark background, dark clothes, would have helped hide the jowly Terry Jones in Drag wattle. And I would have had her looking out of the canvas playfully, rather than playfully away, to still show she has some sprite in her personality.

I understand that photorealism has taken some of the art out of portraiture, but I don't know if a good likeness is what is hurting those particular portraits, as much as other aesthetic choices.

Anonymous said...

I'm no fan of fine art, but I agree wholeheartedly, and the same goes for Statues! I don't want to see General Washington being unsure of himself, I want to see him charging into battle, steeley-eyed, sword in hand, leading the revolution! Larger than life!

Ryan G. said...

I was under the impression that the reason painters decided to do "realistic" portraits (realism not in the photorealism sense but the way people really are) was to stray away from idelic figures..

Vincent Waller said...

Unfortunately, most of the general public, when looking for a painted potrait, are in fact looking fo a photo realistic portrait, with colors they can pick to match their boring living room.

William said...

It wouldn't apply to all pictoral art. What about the acting of say, Caravaggio's Solomon paintings? They need some level of specific emotion and direction, wouldn't you think? It think this mostly applies to portraits, relative candids and such.

You can't be too specific if you're trying to convey some life to it, or motion. You're never simply happy for five minutes, there's a million shades inbetween, that's why we need that subtle stylization of Rubens and Raphael(excellent selection, by the way).

"Why not just take a photograph? There is nothing iconic at all, just a slavish attempt to render detail with some scumbled edges to make it look "painterly"." Exactly! I think too often painters are just trying to paint a simple picture rather than trying to do something with the image.

Ii'm sure I'd have more to add but I can't paint.

Poncy is to the Brits what Wonky is to the Aussies. Poncy is far superior.

Andrew Moore said...

"Do you agree?"

Yes. The naked chick is hot.

GinoMc said...

Nate said... Why not just take a photograph?

THAT's the problem,they're using a photo to work from and it shows,there's no change in light, no slight changes of the models pose, no conversation between the artist and model,no interpretation on the "artists" part,just reproduction with a little embellishment here and there,it's little more than reproduction,and ya, you could ask- why the hell even take the time? what's the point? there's alot more to it than draftsmanship, why do you think half the disney and dreamworks animators are still out of work?
what's the point of having drawing SKILLS when YOU HAVE NOTHING TO SAY having said that...i have to disagree,with iconic/individual thing,if anything i think that it's been a step forward artisticaly - it all comes down to the artist - use it or don't,let's see what they come up with.......

Brian B said...

I think we have too much history in art. It's so confusing the ammount of options. They must have had it nice back in the Rennaisance. Art wasn't revered yet, there wasn't any pressure to be anything other than where their own aspirations took them, there was no photography or massive influences like the ones they created and cast upon us.

I like the way the hands on Raphael's picture has shadow, but underneath the shadow they still have a drawing. They didn't allow the shadow to simply be the form, but had to show the skin, the tendons, the bone. I like that level of hyper realism in art. Where as you may not see that in real life at a glance. Realistic art doesn't feel the need to show you that. But the great masters shared with us information as well as ideas.

I hate the pressure of showing something. Right away to put something there and pump out my drawing. Sometimes it's good, but there is something to be said for having no aspirations and simply using the canvas as a diary. I think the masters kind of did that, but a more intellectual, thoughtful one. Pioneering not just art but the world's thoughts and knowledge at that time through them.

I kind of envy them. That time and place. They took the initiative and made what happened happen. It wasn't like they came into this by sheer fortune. But the atmosphere and the specific stresses as well as lack of stresses at that time, allowed for something eternal and utterly unique to come out.

I don't envy them for their eternal fame really. Just the vision and experience they must have had in the art. Untarnished and uninterrupted by photography, media, history. Of course they had each other as influence which is humorous thinking about these geniuses competing amongst the stars. I heard Da Vinci and Michaelangelo were very competitive. Though there was a bunch who got along.

Off topic though. Anyway, as far as the actual debate - I think what I'm trying to say is that I'm confused. I like em all! But you're right, there's something lasting about the images of the masters. Maybe it's the idealized view. Actually, definitely is a bit. Also maybe the emphasis put on idealized structure, poses. Something like a facial structure, cheek bone to jaw bone is given the time to exist. Not in shorthand but heightened reality even. Just so much information and no preimposed idea to base it on.

Anyway, definitely a good post if it gets me talking this much like a moron. :)

David Germain said...

That might be why the Mona Lisa is such a fascinating piece. You don't know what she's thinking behind that smile. Is she happy or depressed? Does she have a crush on Leonardo or is she politely smiling until he's finished so that she can then get the F@(K away from him? It's a mystery that's engrossed art lovers for about 500 years now.

But here's something that's only been available for under 500 minutes: New Censor Monkeys!!!