Monday, February 22, 2021

Favourite quotes about portraiture

This is NOT a collection of quotes about portraits, portraiture, portrait drawing and portrait painting which has been generated automatically. (check out some of the collections of quotes to see what I mean!)

This collection of quotations has been curated by me in terms of those I think are helpful to understanding the art of portraiture. It will also be expanded and added to as time goes on and I find more good ones. 

Also, rather than producing a long disconnected list, I've tried (as I often to do with information) to sort it into groups to see if it's possible to make more sense of what's being said. To look at the meaning behind the words.

Famous quotations about portraiture

One of the most famous quotations about art concerns portraiture and is by the very famous artist and portrait painter John Singer Sargent.

A portrait is a painting with something a little wrong with the mouth.
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), American painter of many portraits

It's glibly trotted out on frequent occasions.

However, to my mind, as a quotation it succeeds because it's 

  • simple and easy to remember
  • instantly recognisable by all those who have ever tried painting portraits i.e. it's a truism relating to the difficulties and challenges that artists face when painting a mouth
  • an observation often made by those who don't paint but who want to appear clever when viewing portraits so as they can explain why, in their opinion, the portrait painter got it wrong!
For a classic example of the latter read my blog posts about the portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge by Paul Emsley which was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery

the first ever formal official portrait of 
HRH The Duchess of Cambridge 
painted by 
Paul Emsley 
at the 
National Portrait Gallery

Out of the contretemps relating to the Duchess of Cambridge portrait, I acquired a new and very memorable quotation said personally to me by Sandy Nairne himself - the man who commissioned the portrait!
You can count the number of portrait paintings in this (National Portrait) Gallery that include teeth on the fingers of both hands!
Sandy Nairne, the (then) Director of the National Portrait Gallery (2002-2015)
Here's a snappy assertion by that great author and non-painter Charles Dickens
"There are only two styles of portrait painting; the serious and the smirk."
Charles Dickens
The most famous portrait in the world
Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

Below are some famous quotations about portraiture. I've endeavoured to source them but haven't been successful in all instances. The reason for this is I've found on more than a few occasions that the quote in common circulation is garbled....

I've also included some of my commentary and links to more information about the artist.

Why paint portraits

What fascinates me much, much more than does anything else in my metier is the portrait, the modern portrait.
Vincent Van Gogh
Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Wilhelmina van Gogh Auvers-sur-Oise, 5 June 1890
Few professional painters are good at painting portraits. Many amateur artists aspire to being portrait painters - and only some realise the difference between good and bad portraiture.

In my view, artists paint portraits because:

  • they are a challenge - portraits are difficult and not easy
  • they continue to be 'high status art' and good portrait painters command high fees
  • they provide a steady flow of commissions if you become any good - meaning your income from art becomes more certain - thus reducing some of the cashflow stresses often associated with being an artist

The process of painting a portrait

Before the painting comes the drawing
Drawing includes three and a half quarters of the content of painting... Drawing contains everything, except the hue.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867)


La Famille Stamaty
by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

lead pencil

Artists are apt to comment on their approach and process of painting a portrait
"At the moment I’m getting more and more accustomed to talking to the models while I’m painting, so as to keep the liveliness in their faces."

and a more contemporary British artist has this to say

Painting someone's portrait is, of course, an impossible task. What an absurd idea to try and distil a human being, the most complex organism on the planet, into flicks, washes, and blobs of paint on a two-dimensional surface. 
David Cobley

Made to Measure by David Cobley
(Exhibited in RSPP Annual Exhibition 2017)

and their sitters do too.
“I was fascinated by his process. He was slow. Very slow. I worked it out that I sat for him for 120 hours. And because he took a long, long time, we talked a lot: about our lives, people we knew in common, bitchy artist gossip. He wanted you to talk so he could watch how your face moved. He had these incredible eyes that sort of pierced into you, and I could tell when he was working on a specific part of my face, my left cheek or something. Because those eyes would be peering in: peering and piercing.”
David Hockney 
quoted in Freud Interrupted | Vanity Fair (2012) 


What portraits reveal about the sitter

Sometimes sitters don't actually want an accurate portrait, they want a portrait that makes them feel good! 

However if the artist creates a more accurate portrait there can be problems.....
Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend.
John Singer Sargent

For more about Singer Sargent READ: my blog posts about JSS which include:

Artists also have to put up with a lot when it comes to some sitters
You have no idea what portrait painters suffer from the vanity of their sitters. 
Sir Kenneth Clark (1903-1983) art critic and the youngest ever Director of the National Gallery


The artist who imagines that he puts his best into a portrait in order to produce something good, which will be a pleasure to the sitter and to himself, will have some bitter experiences.
Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) 
sculptor - who helped pioneer modern sculpture

Then there's the issue of whether the sitter can actually sit still.

"Some sitters don't engage with the process of having their portrait painted at all. They'll think it's a good opportunity to catch up with all their phone calls."
Stuart Pearson Wright


What portraits reveal about the artist

"every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself."
Oscar Wilde - in The Picture of Dorian Grey
Oscar Wilde is an author and playwright rather than a portrait painter - but there's a lot of truth in what he says. I've noted portraits of people which bear an uncanny resemblance to the artist!

Van Gogh agrees
"painted portraits have a life of their own that comes from deep in the soul of the painter and where the machine can’t go. The more photographs one looks at, it seems to me, the more one feels this."
Vincent Van Gogh
(postscript to a Letter to Theo van Gogh, Antwerp, Monday, 14 December 1885 when comparing painted portraits to photographs of people)
When a portrait says more than what a person looks like, it seems to me it also reveals something about the priorities of the painter
"My approach to portraiture is conceptual"
Amy Sherald - who painted Michelle Obama for the National Portrait Gallery
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama
born 1964, Born Chicago, Illinois
by Amy Sherald

The self portrait

Van Gogh painted some 35 self portraits - mainly so he could practice painting people - because he aspired to be a great portrait painter.

"People say – and I’m quite willing to believe it – that it’s difficult to know oneself – but it’s not easy to paint oneself either.."
Vincent Van Gogh 
(Van Gogh's Self Portraits, The Van Gogh Museum - in a letter to his brother Theo)



Many artists paint themselves so as to either keep their hand in painting portraits or to get better at portraiture. 

Sometimes however the reasons can be slightly different - and sad. This is a quote by Francis Bacon (1909-1992)

“people have been dying around me like flies and I’ve had nobody else to paint but myself … I loathe my own face."
Francis Bacon 


Lucian Freud (1922-2011) painted himself several times over in his career as a leading portrait painter - but most were just "heads". In 1993 he revealed one of his most impressive self portraits “Painter Working, Reflection" which was a painting of a full frontal naked Freud - in the centre of the painting - wearing only his painting boots and brandishing a palette and brush rather as if he was about to engage in a conflict!

“I felt very uneasy doing it. Seldom got so fed up with a model. But I thought, after putting so many other people through it, I ought to subject myself to the same treatment.”


The end of portraiture

Some artists maintain a perennial interest in portraiture while for others it becomes a tortuous exercise to generate income.

I'm finishing with the artist whose words started this post.

I hate to paint portraits I hope never to paint another portrait in my life. Portraiture may be all right for a man in his youth, but after forty I believe that manual dexterity deserts one, and, besides, the color-sense is less acute. Youth can better stand the exactions of a personal kind that are inseparable from portraiture. I have had enough of it.
John Singer Sargent

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