Art Art and Design Art Exhibition English

1000 Portraits of Genius

Exhibition: The Art of Portraiture in the Louvre Collections

Date: May 30 2018 – Sep 03 2018

Venue: The National Art Center, Tokyo

Since Antiquity, portraits have been commissioned to represent important people, figures, heroes and gods. Over time, this artistic genre has evolved from the embellished Greek marble sculptures to contemporary paintings, photography and abstract works. While the specific aesthetic style of the portrait often varies over time, the main purpose of portraiture, has remained consistent-to depict the personality, characteristics or essence of a person or important figure by using the face as the dominant feature of the composition.

The Seated Scribe, Serapeum, Saqqara, Egyptian, Old Kingdom, 4th Dynasty, c. 2620-2500 B.C.E. Painted limestone statue, inlaid eyes: rock crystal, magnesite (magnesium carbonate), copper-arsenic alloy, nipples made of wood, height: 53.7 x 44 x 35 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The first known portraits can be traced back to prehistoric times (c. 30,000 B.C.E.) when men reproduced the outlines of their shadows as an attempt to preserve their memory in times of absence. Over time these depictions evolved into monochrome representations with simple lines and shapes, which now can be compared to the contemporary “portrayals” and abstract forms created by modern artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

Christ Pantocrator, 1148. Mosaic. Cefalu Cathedral, Sicily. Byzantine.

This collective work attempts to create a comprehensive outline of the history of portraiture illustrated in both painting and sculpture. In the hierarchy of art theory, the portrait was initially viewed inferior compared to history painting but superior to still life and other genre paintings. Throughout the history of art, theorists have occasionally been sceptical or critical regarding the issue of resemblance to the sitter, implying that the artist often portrays his or idealization of the subject. Despite this, the immense number of surviving portraits suggests that portraiture was nonetheless a popular request by those responsible for commissioning artworks across the artistic timeline.

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Italian, Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo the Elder, c. 1475. Tempera on wood and gilded stucco, 57.5 x 44 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Portraiture is often overshadowed by other styles and genres of art. Art that qualifies as narrative painting or sculpture is almost always more appreciated amongst the masses than the black and white portrait of a political figure or famous artist. Perhaps this occurs because people assume that a portrait does not directly appeal to the imagination or tell a particular story. The differences between a portrait and a narrative piece of art can be compared to that of a novel and a biography. The first focuses predominantly on plot and action, while the latter is more concerned with the development and analysis of a specific individual.

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), Dutch, Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1665. Oil on canvas, 44.5 x 39 cm. Mauritshuis, The Hague. Classicism.

Therefore a biography could be considered flat in comparison to a novel that is full of dramatic scenes. However, depending on the nature of the writing itself a biography can be just as fascinating and compelling as a novel. Evidently, in the same respect, a portrait that has been painted in such an exemplary and skillful manner can be just as insightful as an illustration of a particular myth or story.

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), French, Napoleon Crossing the Alps at the St. Bernard Pass, c. 1800. Oil on canvas, 260 x 221 cm. Musée National du Château Malmaison, Rueil-Malmaison. Neoclassicism.

Knowing some background information regarding the identity of the sitter often impacts the accessibility of the portrait, because the spectator instantly recognises the subject and can therefore compare their understanding of the person with the particular representation.

Paul Delvaux (1897-1994), Belgian, Madame Pollet, 1945. Oil on canvas, 100 x 80 cm. Fondation Paul Delvaux, Saint-Idesbald. Surrealism.

But even the portrait of an “unknown” subject can be so charged with meaning and depth that the visitor cannot help but be intrigued. A great portrait artist can illustrate a story so effectively that sometimes a precise title is not even necessary. Therefore, Titian‘s (Tiziano Vecelli) Man with the Glove, Rembrandt’s (Harmenszoon van Rijn) Portrait of a Man located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Diego Velasquez’s Lady with the Fan may appeal to us even more powerfully than many of the identified portraits by these same masters.

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