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What is a portrait part 1

So, a couple of posts back I posed the question what is a portrait and gave my thoughts on what a portrait is and what I see as the different types of portraits. To review, I tend to believe that at the heart of the portrait lies three distinct views:

1: The view of the subject as the subject sees themselves.

2: The view of the subject as others see the subject.

3: The view of the subject as the artist sees the subject.

In this post we will examine number 1 on my list, a portrait being the view of the subject as they see themselves. This can be explored either as a self portrait, or a portrait that is done by an artist on their subject, both of which we will be looking at here.

A lot of artists struggle with the self portrait, I believe because they have a hard time understanding how they want to communicate their own look and personality to the world. Some of my all time favorite self portraits are the ones done by the artist Francis Bacon for just this reason, as he definitely has a view of himself that is truly personal.

Self Portrait, Francis Bacon 1971

Francis Bacon was one of the most famous painters of the modern era and created some very raw and even bleak paintings (Margaret Thatcher once referred to him as"That man who paints those dreadful pictures"). From looking at the image above we can see that this is most likely not what Francis Bacon actually, physically looked like (it's not) but rather a view of what Francis Bacon thought of himself. He was known to be critical of his face and appearance, often questioned his and all human existence all of which led to a torment that showed up in his self portraits (he was a not known as a real cheerful kind of guy).

So what about an artist who wants to create a portrait of someone else based upon how the subject sees themselves? Well, we have seen examples of that throughout history, especially in some of the great paintings of kings and royalty throughout time. One of the most famous is the painting Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques Louis David.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps - Jacques Louis David

In this image we see the mighty Napoleon Bonaparte in a strongly idealized view (of course I don't imagine Napoleon would have it any other way) of the real crossing that Napoleon and his army made across the Alps through the Great St. Bernard Pass in May 1800. As many people are aware, Napoleon thought very highly of himself and of course would always want to be portrayed in a position of power.

When I produce a portrait of someone I sit down with them ahead of our session and ask them questions about themselves to get a better understanding of their personalities, likes, dislikes, and will even ask them about how they see themselves in order to gain a better understanding of how I might want to portray them in a portrait.

So, as you can see there are different ways in which a portrait can be made based upon how the subject sees themselves. In my next posting we will look at the portrait as a view of the subject as others see them. Until then...

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