Henri Fantin-Latour, Homage to Delacroix, 1864
Art,  English

Capturing Brilliance: 1000 Portraits of Genius Illuminate the World

The text below is the excerpt from the book 1000 Portraits of Genius (ISBN: 9781783109456), written by Victoria Charles and Klaus Carl, published by Parkstone International.

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 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. 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.

Symposiast (detail), south wall, Tomb of the Diver, Paestum, Greek, Classical style, c. 470 B.C.E., 1000 Portraits of Genius
Symposiast (detail), south wall, Tomb of the Diver, Paestum, Greek, Classical style, c. 470 B.C.E. Fresco on limestone. In situ.

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.

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 later is more concerned with the development and analysis of a specific individual. 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.

Piero di Cosimo, Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci, c. 1480-1490, 1000 Portraits of Genius
Piero di Cosimo (1462-1521), Italian, Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci, c. 1480-1490. Tempera on wood, 57 x 42 cm. Musée Condé, Chantilly.

Evidently, in the same respect, a portrait that has been painted in such an exemplary and skilful manner can be just as insightful as an illustration of a particular myth or story. 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. 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.

The first quality of great portraiture is the power to reveal the inner character, or story, of the sitter. It is said that every man habitually wears a mask in the presence of his peers, and it is only in moments of unconsciousness that he lets it down. The great portrait painter must be able to capture the true essence of the individual, an incredibly complex task given that the spirit of the subject may only reveal itself in fleeting moments. Such an artist, as the poet Tennyson describes, “pouring on a face, divinely through all hindrance finds the man behind it, and so paints him so that his face, the shape and colour of a mind and life, lives for his children, ever at his best.”

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, c. 1503-1506, 1000 Portraits of Genius
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Italian, Mona Lisa (La Gioconda), c. 1503-1506. Oil on poplar panel, 77 x 53 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The goal was not only to portray the subject’s physical characteristics but the entire essence of the individual, Aristotle stated that “the goal of art is not to present the outward appearance of things, but their inner significance.” Interpretative portrait painting was often modelled after Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa. The mysterious nature of the Mona Lisa’s facial expression gives depth to her character – the spectator is instantly intrigued and desires to know what she may be hiding. Therefore to attain this level of portraiture, the artist must become cognizant and sympathetic to the spirit of the subject.

In addition from a compositional standpoint the Mona Lisa symbolizes perfection, its precise proportions and use of atmospheric perspective also are responsible for its acclaim in the art world. Many portrait painters since, however far from attaining his ideal, have idealised da Vinci and utilised his work as inspiration. James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s power was remarkable in his own circle, while Franz Hals and Diego Velasquez were more universally recognised. Often the personality of the sitter is revealed by a direct gaze that seems to encompass something fascinating about the subject. Whether delightful or solemn, the eyes of the sitter seem to draw the spectator in with a sense of “intimacy” that is difficult to break down and define.

Nicolas de Largillière, Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Rousseau, 1710, 1000 Porrtraits of Genius
Nicolas de Largillière (1656-1746), French, Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Rousseau, 1710. Oil on canvas, 90 x 72.5 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Rococo.

This quality is especially evident in the jovial nature of Hals’ portraits, the friendly smiles apparent within Joshua Reynolds’ paintings, the wistful stare captured in Rembrandt’s portraits, and the melancholy appeal within the paintings of Domenico Morone. At other times the sitter’s glance is averted, and he is quite unaware of observation. The artist has illustrated the sitter in the intimacy of his own self-communion; a trait that is often found in Titian’s subjects.

Therefore the artist’s ability to depict the inner nature of the sitter became an incredibly subjective art. Initially when portraiture was only reserved for a specific social class, the aristocracy, the church and the upper middle class or bourgeoisie, it was necessary for the portrait to be a flattering representation of the subject. Eventually artists could freely express themselves in their own introspective manner when painting a portrait…

Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps at the St. Bernard Pass, c. 1800, 1000 Portraits of Genius
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.

To get a better insight into 1000 Portraits of Genius, continue this exciting adventure by clicking on:

EbookAmazon USAmazon UKAmazon AustraliaAmazon FrenchAmazon GermanAmazon MexicoAmazon ItalyAmazon SpainAmazon CanadaAmazon BrazilAmazon JapanAmazon IndiaAmazon NetherlandsParkstone InternationalEbook GalleryKoboBarnes & NobleGoogleAppleOverdriveScribd
BookbeatEllibs24symbolsRedShelf, Goodreads, YouScribe

HardcoverThe Great British Book Shop

Explore our The Book collection:

Parkstone International is an international publishing house specializing in art books. Our books are published in 23 languages and distributed worldwide. In addition to printed material, Parkstone has started distributing its titles in digital format through e-book platforms all over the world as well as through applications for iOS and Android. Our titles include a large range of subjects such as: Religion in Art, Architecture, Asian Art, Fine Arts, Erotic Art, Famous Artists, Fashion, Photography, Art Movements, Art for Children.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap
%d bloggers like this: