Exercise 1 – Historic Portrait

According to the Tate: “Portraiture is a very old art form going back at least to ancient Egypt, where it flourished from about 5,000 years ago. Before the invention of photography, a painted, sculpted, or drawn portrait was the only way to record the appearance of someone.

But portraits have always been more than just a record. They have been used to show the power, importance, virtue, beauty, wealth, taste, learning or other qualities of the sitter. Portraits have almost always been flattering, and painters who refused to flatter, such as William Hogarth, tended to find their work rejected. A notable exception was Francisco Goya in his apparently bluntly truthful portraits of the Spanish royal family…At the same time (as Picasso), photography became the most important medium of traditional portraiture, bringing what was formerly an expensive luxury product affordable for almost everyone.”

https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/p/portrait [accessed 11th March 2020]

“Portraits have been around since the beginning of time as a means to describe not only physical features but more importantly power and status. Testaments of portraiture as a genre can be seen as early as Ancient Egyptian wall paintings of gods and pharaohs.

Ancient Greeks also had fascination with portraiture, mostly in its sculpted form, representing both gods and lay people (who through art were elevated to the status of a deity).  Romans followed a similar tradition borrowing motifs from Ancient Egypt and Greece and developing a flair for portrait busts of key power personalities. Ancient Greek and Romans were also the ones who started the tradition of depicting figure-heads on coins. During the Middles ages portraiture declined and was strictly confined to donor portraits.

The Renaissance saw the re-invention of portraiture in its modern sense and is a pivotal moment in the history of the genre. Predominately portraying royals, nobles, and religious figures, Renaissance portraits concentrated on the status and personality of the sitter through the depiction of objects of characterisation (such as a globe for a well travelled sitter).

Italian painters dominated at the time while the Baroque and Rococo periods saw the predominance of Flemish and Spanish artists. In Britain the early to mid 18th century saw the rise of artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds with historical portraiture while later on in the 1800s Pre-Raphaelites became the dominant force.

The 19th and early 20th century are characterised by a multiplicity of art movements from the pre- realism, to impressionism, to cubism. Portraits during these times opened up to include the bourgeoisie and many times to include the immediate circle of artists, as well as nameless models.  In the mid 20th century pop art developed a fascination for celebrity portraits, with Andy Warhol as its master, which has continued to the present day. From the ‘60s onwards photography takes over portraiture by the storm, due to its immediacy, developing many different trends.”

http://www.fabulousnoble.com/news/history_of_portraiture [accessed 11th March 2020]

Felix Nadar, Sarah Bernhardt, 1865

I have chosen a portrait by Felix Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon). “Nadar’s success was not due solely to his studio being transformed into a social hotspot; he also possessed serious chops as a portrait photographer. His studio settings were well lit, employing strong side lighting, and simple backgrounds that emphasized the subject’s face. He accentuated this with a patented process to fade out the image edges to a low contrast, the use of dark clothing, and hiding the subject hands, all with the aim of focusing the viewer’s attention on the subject’s face. In 1858, he was the first to experiment with battery-powered electric lamps for studio lighting. After much trial and error, he developed techniques for the use of directed lighting, diffusers, and reflectors for effect, achieving the Rembrandt-style lighting still popular today. The last element of Nadar’s success was the relationship he cultivated with the subject. Nadar invited his portrait models to a comfortable studio setting, and engaged each client with a relaxed personal rapport. His boundless energy and enthusiasm, sense of humor, and attention to the client supported a photographic style that subtly included the subject as an intimate and collaborative partner in creating a great image. In his own words, ‘What can [not] be learned… is the moral intelligence of your subject; it’s the swift tact that puts you in communion with the model, makes you size him up, grasp his habits and ideas in accordance with his character, and allows you to render, not an indifferent plastic reproduction that could be made by the lowliest laboratory worker, commonplace and accidental, but the resemblance that is most familiar and most favorable, the intimate resemblance. It’s the psychological side of photography—the word doesn’t seem overly ambitious to me.’”

https://notquiteinfocus.com/2014/10/16/a-brief-history-of-photography-part-11-early-portrait-photography/ [accessed 11th March 2020]

Nadar’s portrait is of Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) an actress, singer and theatre director. Her voice and acting skills were considered extraordinary. In 1896, Bernhardt played the title role in Alfred de Musset’s Lorenzaccio, in the Théâtre de la Renaissance, performing the part at the age of 52. Her performance was declared by the critics to be “from beginning to end, and at every moment, incomparably sublime.”

Nadar’s portrayal is of a beautiful woman, dressed apparently in some renaissance type garment. Her hair is lustrous and dark as are her eyes. She is fully covered apart from her head and her neck, though the visible neck and face betray her physique as being slim. She appears bored; perhaps her sitting has been long, or she is used to her portrait being taken. She looks aloof and has an intelligent appearance. Judging by the quality of production, especially in that time, one can guess that she was fed up. She is not looking at the camera, and presumably not at Nadar. Was she instructed not too? On further inspection, the garment could easily be a stage curtain; it is frayed at the edge and has tassels.

The photograph was taken in 1865 in Nadar’s studio. By accounts, Nadar had sophisticated control over his use of natural and artificial lighting, and this is apparent in the photograph. The lighting enhances the physical structure of Bernhardt herself but also the many folds of her garment. The lighting also provided highlights to add to the interest. The quality of the lighting is sophisticated for the time.

The photograph was probably used for publicity of Bernhardt rather than as an artistic outlet for Nadar, though he obviously had a passion for his work.

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