Portraits are pictures of people either singly or in a group.  A good portrait will show a likeness as well as telling us something about the sitter or participant.  Sometimes a figure or figures can be introduced into a picture to add to the composition rather than be the subject.  These pictures are still portraits though we may not be able to identify the sitter.






Byzantine
Icon of Sts Sergius and Bacchus
7th Cent (possibly 6th)
Encaustic over Gesso on panel
29 x 42 cm with mount
Originally St Catherine Convent Mt Sinai, now Museum of Eastern and Western art Kiev (USSR)
 
Icons are sacred images originally used in antiquity to facilitate ‘contact’ between the supplicant and the iconic saint or saints. They also had a teaching role. Walls of churches, chapels, baptisteries and burial chambers were decorated with icons particularly in the Eastern Orthodox
Church. Many have survived and are now mostly held in art museums to ensure their proper conservation.
Encaustic (Gk ‘burnt in’) is pigment mixed with hot wax providing a very durable image. Encaustic was used to decorate ships and was said to withstand the worst which weather could inflict. It was one of the principal mediums used in the Ancient World (Egypt and Greece). 
Gesso is a ground plaster base used to provide the painting surface (ground) on which a painting would subsequently be done.
 
Sergius and Bacchus (this is not the enthusiastic party-goer) were 3rd century Roman soldiers who were tortured to death (Bacchus) and beheaded (Sergius) when their Roman officers discovered their Christian faith. Both had refused to recant. They were close friends and this icon has become one of the best known of paired icons. So close was the friendship that later commentators have suggested a relationship.  Their dual martyrdom led to dual beatification.
Interestingly there is a great deal of information on both the saints and churches established in their names on the Internet.
 
The saints are shown in half length, heads slightly turned to one another. Each is similarly dressed and each holds a cross. Each wears a necklace with three inlaid gems and the halos of each are punched with a design of dots, circles and stars. Both figures have been much retouched with oil by later ‘restorers’. 
The picture is an example of Byzantine Art, a period which lasted for over a 1000 years. Byzantine figures were drawn either in full face or profile and were strictly two-dimensional in appearance. The two-dimensioned style persisted until Giotto (1267-1337, Italian) began to paint three-dimensional figures and Brunelleschi (1377-1446, Italian) invented (some say re-invented) perspective which gave depth to pictures.





Raphael (1483-1520), Italian- mostly Florence and Rome
Self Portrait? 1500-2
Black chalk, 38 x 26 cm
The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
 
Born in Urbino, the artistically precious Raphael was early influenced by Perugino in whose studio he started work. Moving to Florence he quickly absorbed the precepts of both Michelangelo and Leonardo though he was quickly to develop his own style and persona. At the age of 23 he was invited to Rome by Pope Julius (II) to decorate a room in the Papal Apartments using fresco.  Michelangelo was working on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the same time. The papal Apartment frescos established Raphael as a major player in the Italian Renaissance and he went on to complete further frescos and designs for tapestries both secular and religious as well as many panel paintings; notably portraits. Towards the end of his life he began to be involved in architecture. He died tragically young at 37 in 1520. Readers are invited to read more about Raphael and see more of his work by going to Week 2 of Art and Life on the website.
 
This is the most economic of drawings. In just a few lines Raphael shows us a sensitive, whimsical boy. Head and body are twisted in contrapuncto, the face looks just past us to our right perhaps seeing more of our circumstances than we would like. Shoulders and upper torso are hinted at and the picture given three dimensions by the hair framing the face. Delicate shading rounds out the left side of the face, but it is the eyes which invite us into the picture. The head thrusts gently forward suggesting an affirmative character which knew its place in the art world of the time and understood that history was there to be made.
The picture is obviously that of a boy around fifteen years of age and there is some controversy as to whether this is a self portrait as it is dated when Raphael would have been around nineteen. Indeed some scholars date the picture to 1504. However the facial features as so close to other known self portraits that perhaps we can overlook the dating problem.





Frans Hals, 1580(?)- 1666, Dutch worked mostly in Haarlem
Young Man holding a Skull (Vanitas), 1626-8
Oil on canvas, 92 x 88 cm.
The National Gallery, London
 
Hals was the leading portrait painter of his day in the important artistic centre of Haarlem. Known for his compelling, vigorous brush work he painted portraits for the local business people as well as family groups and civic commissions. He also painted religious pictures and everyday scenes with a moralising overtone of which the present picture is an example. A Vanitas picture is one which alludes to the temporyness of human existence and the futility of storing up treasures here on earth. The picture is painted in the tonal-realist style which prevailed from the renaissance to the mid-nineteenth century when painters of the Barbizon School began to move towards a freer use of colour and heralded the Impressionists.
 
In this vigorous picture we capture a young man making a point to an unseen companion to our right. His hand jabs out of the picture plane urging us into the discussion. A jaunty hat-feather projects and then droops, curling, into our space. In his left hand he holds a skull, a painterly sign since antiquity of the constant proximity and suddenness of death. We are being not so much warned to prepare for the end of our days, as to conduct our lives in a non-acquisitive way and give proper consideration to the spiritual dimension. The muted colouring of the picture emphasises the motion of the hand and the dangling feather, both potent indicators that our interlocutor is keen to capture our attention and for us to heed his message.
 




Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1723-92, British
Self Portrait, c1747
Oil on canvas, 64 x 74 cm
National portrait Gallery, London.
 
Reynolds was about 24 when he painted this picture and was to go on to become the leading painter of his time along with Thomas Gainsborough.  Ultimately President of the Royal Academy, Reynolds was one of the most important painters in British art history. Our picture captures him just before he set off for Italy to study the great masters including Raphael and Michelangelo and Titian.   Reynolds insisted on the importance of the artist as both a commentator and illustrator of the human condition and did much to raise the status of painting from that of journeyman to intellectual. He went blind in 1789 but not before writing his ‘Discourses’ which in part took the side of expression in the Grand Manner as against sentimentality as expressed in the Romanticism of the day. For Reynolds the whole business of living was of the greatest seriousness and not to be trivialised.
 
Here we see Reynolds looking afar not just to Italy where he was immediately bound but to the whole future of painting in England in which he saw himself as playing a significant part. The finely-crafted intelligent features look out at the inviting and tameable distance which is soon to feel his presence. The left arm sweeps commandingly to the brow shielding away unwanted, distracting light and loose ideas. Our Man is about to make his mark. Only a bright vest and flesh colour of the face relieve the subdued green tones prevailing over most of the picture. A wonderful movement and determination pervades the composition. 



Jean August Dominic Ingres, 1780-1867. French
Comtesse d Haussonville, 1845
Oil on canvas, 132 x 92 cm
Frick Collection, New York
 
Ingres lived through the rise and fall of several Napoleons’ including Bonaparte. He won the coveted Prix de Rome in 1801 but because of the parlous state of the French economy did not spend the usual stay in Rome until later. He ultimately spent much time in Italy; both Rome and Florence. Ingres was the most admired painters of his day in France and one of the most prestigious; he was made a Legion of Honour in 1855. He painted a limited number of themes in which portraits figured prominently and his work is distinguished by flowing line and jewelled, shining enamelled colour. The Oxford Companion describes his portraits as sentimental and vacuous- a harsh critique surely given that his work has been collected by every important gallery worldwide and given pleasure to millions.
 
Ingres Comtesse stands full length about to take us into her confidence. Filling the middle of the picture her placement suggests a strong, accomplished, woman and she had indeed published several volumes including a life of Byron. No mean feat in a time when woman were meant to be a decorative addendum to the male of the family. The picture is enlivened by the reflection in the mirror- a view which reinforces the determined twist of the head. Flowers and a vase provide bright spots in the right middle-ground to invite us into a space which we might have otherwise missed. Her gown is sumptuously coloured and wonderfully painted and note how the brass mirror frame on the left and the yellow clothing draped over a chair in the bottom right ensure that our eye travels all around the picture. The space to the left is nicely confused geometrically adding mystery to the picture. What is the Comtesse about to say?





Winslow Homer, 1836-1910. American
A Light on the Sea, 1897
Oil on canvas, 72 x 123 cm
The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
 
Homer was a painter mainly of landscape and seascape. His pictures show strong subject representation, and firm, confident colour use to portray his subject “exactly as it appears” to quote him. Nevertheless his later pictures, especially, have a strong metaphysical leaning. Much collected he is represented in all important American collections and in major galleries worldwide. Apart from two years in England in the 1880s Homer painted in America ending his career living and working on the Maine coast.
 
Paradoxically all the movement in this picture is in the figure not the sea. The water is calm and apparently inoffensive providing the platform for the reflection of the light which gives the picture its name. The dark left foreground provides a contrasted surface to the lighted sea and helps set the figure monumentally in the front of the picture. The woman, head turned defiantly to her left, curves powerfully but not sensuously upward. Is she a metaphor for the battle between sea and exploitative humanity? The solemnly quiescent, monstrous sea is calm and brilliantly illuminated; its changes of mood are sudden and potentially devastating. The fisher folk accommodate the sea’s various moods but must combat its forces for their livelihood. 
 
 



Georges Rouault, 1871-1958, French
Clown, 1907/8 (Detail)
Oil on paper 60 x 47 cm
Harvard University; Robert Woods Bliss collection, Washington D.C.
 
Rouault began his artistic career as an apprentice to a glass painter and stained glass restorer. He studied with Matisse in 1892 but after a psychological crisis in 1898 he went his own way ignoring the development of the Fauve movement which was developing around Matisse. Instead of painting in the bright colours of the Fauves he chose a more sombre palette and painted clowns, prostitutes and other societal outcasts as well as judges. His work began to be noticed when he formed an association with the well-known dealer Ambrose Vollard and he worked for Vollard until the 1920s. After the 1930s his work began to be exhibited abroad and in 1938 he had an exhibition of engravings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He began to specialise in Religious art after about 1940 and was granted a major retrospective at MOMA in 1945. 
His deeply-coloured, sombre-toned pictures show great strength and apparent simplicity in composition which belies their detailed commentary on the human condition. He was the leading exponent of the French Expressionist movement.
 
 
Rouault’s expressionistic clown is painted with almost frantic, short brush strokes using minimal colour. The angled head speaks of withdrawal and pathos but a knowing pathos- who is to be pitied? There is firmness about the features and a defensiveness which keeps us out of the inner moments of the clowns psyche. The solemn eyes are windows into our souls and the clown throws us to our own psychological devices rather than offer himself up for comment. Are we seeing a clown here or an invitation for self examination? Note the splendid painting of the ruff and shoulders where depth and roundness are created with the application of minimal paint. 





Justin O’Brien, 1917-1996, Australian
Boy on a Terrace, 1988
Oil on Canvas, 66 x 49 cm
Private collection
 
O’Brien served in the Army Medical Corps during the Second World War. He was captured in Greece and sent to Poland in 1941. In 1944 he was part of a prisoner exchange and ended up in Spain before being sent to Australia for discharge. Whilst in captivity he studied Byzantine art and, using materials supplied by the Red Cross, began painting in the Byzantine style but was also influenced by Flemish painting. He moved permanently to Rome in 1967 after living and working as an artist in Australia and teaching art in secondary school. Though an expatriate he exhibited in Australia for the rest of his life.
 
Boy on a terrace is typical of O’Brien’s enigmatic picture making. He maintained that it was as relevant to investigate and extend an existing style as to invent something new. So this picture is painted in the style of renaissance Italy but is clearly a modern work. Silence and emotional distance pervade the picture. Set against a background of a dry stone wall where almost every individual stone has its portrait, a boy sits gazing determinedly but not staring to our right. Above the wall there is a garden also painted in great detail with individual flowers and leaves. The bright colours and detail of the garden are balanced by a splendid, Flemish-style, still life on the table top. The picture is given depth by the perspective of the canopy and the receding, cooler colours of the landscape. Are the three trees a reminder of the crucifixion? The boy, brightly dressed in a glaring red jacket and green trousers, sits pensively in the lower left of the picture but dominating it by bold colouring and psychological presence. In this busy landscape he is silent, still and remote, yet surely the left arm is awkwardly draped over the body producing a slight, uncomfortable twist in the torso. There is palpable tension in the composition and a sense of foreboding. Do those dominating, leaning trees hark to the crucifixion? Is the canopy a baldachin or perhaps a processional cover?  The composition though an organic whole is in two separate parts the plainly painted boy contrasts with the busyness of his surroundings. Why is he there? Is the picture meant to be a portrait?





Frederick McCubbin, 1855- 1917, Australian
The Lost Child, 1886
Oil on canvas, 115 x 73 cm
National Gallery of Victoria: Australian Collection, Federation Square. Melbourne
 
McCubbin was one of the trilogy; McCubbin, Roberts and Streeton who were the artistic backbone of the ‘Australian Impressionists’. A genial man he spent most of his life in Melbourne but travelled once to Europe for six months in 1907 where he studied the great masters. McCubbin was
greatly influenced by the International Exhibition in Melbourne of 1880 where he first saw the French Impressionist style of painting apart from reproduction. He painted several monumental canvasses prior to travelling overseas but on his return made mostly smaller pictures in the style of the Impressionists; refining the technique and adapting it to Australian light. He was a fine drawer and painter of the figure. 
 
The Lost Child is as much a portrait of the Australian bush as anything else. Undergrowth, trees and light are skilfully painted in McCubbin’s adapted French style whilst the child occupies a relatively tiny amount of space in the middle ground. Ironically given the potential seriousness of the situation which the little girl finds herself we do not feel particularly concerned. Surely so lyrical a surround can bring the child no real harm. Help will not be long in arriving; probably the group from whom she has just become separated. McCubbin’s facility for painting vegetation and the effect of light on it are no better shown than in this picture. We enter the bush, crackle around in the grass pushing away brambles and making our way in the independent manner of the first settlers. Note how perspective is established by the simple tonal device of darkening the undergrowth further into the picture and providing a simple frame of trees. 






David Smith, 1906-1965, American
Australia, 1951
Painted steel, 202 x 274 x 41 cm
Museum of Modern Art, New York
 
David Smith learnt to weld as a riveter in the car industry and became a sculptor after beginning as a painter. His sculptural work shows influence from Surrealism, Constructivism and Abstract Expressionism. Beginning with welded steel structures his work moved through a period of ‘drawing in space’ welded rod structures (the present work is an example) to much larger geometric constructions often in stainless steel. 
 
Australia must be viewed as a drawing- which it is using steel rods instead of lines. Front on, the iconic kangaroo is the clear motif. The animal bounds through space capturing fluidity and strength of movement. An aboriginal art-work adorns its back and the whole is a work of balance, tension and lightness; the grace and motion emphasised by the anchoring base.