September 7, 2008

"Portraits of famous people tend to look like the painters because the artists were all simply depicting themselves..."

A new study:
Computer-aided comparisons made between a series of portraits of British monarchs and the self-portraits of the artists who painted them prove that there has always been a hidden agenda in top-level portraiture, argues the art historian Simon Abrahams.

After lengthy research and the examination of hundreds of famous paintings from new angles, Abrahams has launched his contentious theory through his website, ArtScholar.org. He believes it is clear that many portraitists, painters who were often doing this kind of work just for money, chose to assert themselves by reproducing their own facial characteristics within those of their powerful sitters.
Ah, we always knew those artists were big narcissists!



Abrahams says:
"In fact, of course, any art student can paint a pretty good likeness of someone and the truth is that everything that we see in the world, we only see in our minds anyway. We can only interpret what we see through what we already know. Great artists have known this instinctively and so have deliberately painted their own faces, even when they are supposed to be reproducing reality. It is rather like the way that when we look at our own children, all we can really see is little images of ourselves."
Ah, it's not really just the artists, is it? We all see ourselves everywhere. Or am I only saying that because that's the way it is for me, and for me, it's all about me? What about you? Are you like me?

17 comments:

EnigmatiCore said...

I am a man, and I wear shorts.

rhhardin said...

That's Lilian Schwartz's argument, for the Mona Lisa, long ago.

[googles] her.

Palladian said...

Or is it because artists tend to paint in a specific way and all their portraits, regardless of subject, share similar qualities. This "study" is comparing artist's self-portraits to their portraits of other people but seems to disregard the fact that they're comparing two paintings by the same hand. Shouldn't it be comparing photographs of the artist with their painted portraits of their subjects?

Does Antony Van Dyck's portrait of Charles I look like Van Dyck's self-portrait?

[side note: that triple portrait of Charles I was painted to be sent to the sculptor Bernini in Rome to use as a reference image from which to sculpt a bust of the English king.]

wfhenning said...

This calls for an analysis of the distribution of mirrors in the 16th century. With mirrors all about us more, "self-portrait" portraiture should be on the ascendancy.
In any event, who would 17th century artist know better; his own face, or his wife's?

Harwood said...

Not a convincing argument.

We see comparisons of an artist's self-portrait alongside one portrait of another person. But this raises questions:

1. How accurately did the artist portray himself?

2. How accurately did he portray the other subject?

3. How much did the artists resemble the subjects chosen for comparison?

Without comparative photographs, we don't know. I wonder if the author began with a conclusion and selected evidence to support it.

Palladian said...

"In fact, of course, any art student can paint a pretty good likeness of someone..."

As a college art professor all I can say is that he hasn't been around too many art students, has he?

"and the truth is that everything that we see in the world, we only see in our minds anyway. We can only interpret what we see through what we already know."

No, we can only interpret what we see through the limitations of our manual and technical abilities and the behavior of our materials and the habits which direct how we use them. This person is predicating their "study" upon the notion that the artist's physical output is a one to one correlation with the artist's vision. This is a fallacy.

Harry said...

"It is rather like the way that when we look at our own children, all we can really see is little images of ourselves."

Can only speak for myself, but that's totally not what I see when I look at my daughters. Maybe if they were boys? I think this says more about Abrahams than about people in general.

reader_iam said...

Fascinating!

Bissage said...

The world makes much more sense once we abandon our belief in free will and embrace the notion that we are all working toward the goal of building something we cannot possibly understand.

SGT Ted said...

In the Royal Palace in Edinboro, there are a sseries of paintings done by an artist of the Scottish Royal line. The artist painted them all with the same nose and other facial features as the contemprary patron in order to curry favor.

So, a practice at odds with the theory. Fun, yet meaningless.

George said...

Silly.

You can go to Google Images and see many of Freud's portraits.

They look like lots of different people to me.

Sincerely,
A. Neanderthal

Ron said...

What about you? Are you like me?
I dunno. Are you like me?

Ralph said...

Didn't all those Georgian aristocrats have similar faces because many were related? Any Gainsborough or Reynolds portraits available?

bleeper said...

I have seen that before. A friend of my father's painted his portrait - it looked like the friend, not my father. Even the pictures this old guy painted of naked chicks looked like him. That was truly creepy.

Bryan C said...

I wouldn't be surprised if artists sometimes used their own faces as anatomical references while painting someone else's portrait. After all, Charles I probably wasn't going to sit around in your studio until you finished the last brushstroke, or drop by tomorrow if you were unclear about the flare of his nostrils or the curl of his wig. With only sketches and memory to go by I'm sure there was a lot of fudging going on.

rhhardin said...

Favorite Lilian Schwartz story.

She's commissioned to do a pipe sculpture for a deep-pocket company.

So she goes to the local Builder's Square or something, goes to the pipe fitting section, and loads up three shopping carts with everything there.

She checks out, takes it to work.

Two weeks later, she needs a little more stuff, returns to the Builder's Square.

Now instead of two bays of pipe fittings, they have eight bays.

That's automatic inventory adjustment at work. They stock what sells.

Meade said...

"What about you? Are you like me?"

No, but that's what I like about you.