The Art of Portrait

25 octobre 2016

Present since antiquity, abandoned to religious purposes, sublimated by the Flemish Masters and tortured by photography, Portraiture traced a sinuous line following the curves and the various aspects of the history of Art.

Funeral and spiritual art

Just like watercolor or Figurative Artrepresentations of portraits take their origin in Ancient times. The first portrait is attributed to artists of the Egyptian Old Kingdom (2700-2300 BC). Entirely dedicated to the dead, kings and gods, these paintings are not made to be seen by the living but for the spiritual world. Even if they do not have the meaning given to the portrait today, their codes are specific and the "funeral portraits" are dependent on the social importance of the subject. Within this same Egypt in the first century AD, arrived the famous "Faiyum Portraits." This set of paintings created in the end of the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius until the fourth century, represent funerary portraits painted and inserted into the bandages on the face of the mummy concerned.


(Faiyum Portraits)

Other civilizations such as the Romans or Greeks, few paintings have subsisted, but the literary sources of the time, including the writings of Pliny the Elder, are unanimous and demonstrate this art of portrait. "Portraits that is used to pass through the ages, accurate likenesses of people, has completely disappeared ... indolence destroyed the arts." From this time, it is possible to categorize the portrait painting into two groups: portraits relating to the funerary Art that act as commemoration and remembrance, and portraits concerning the « glorifying Art ». Pliny the Elder spoke about it by saying "Through this art, nobles were more noble." This Art is for those who do not know the subject and it is spreading rapidly even to less popular person, evidenced by this fresco from Pompeii depicting a baker and his wife as two great characters. Although popular, the Greek and Roman portraits will be off by the rise of Christianity and the rise of the Christian thought.


The ellipse of the Middle Ages

Like any monotheistic religion, Christianity maintains uncertain relations with the representation of man and the picture in general. In the early Middle Ages, this is the prohibition to paint or sculpt human that predominates. The Church regulates the Art in its own way and in fear of idolatry, only sacred scenes are allowed for decorating churches. After nearly a millennium of sidelining, the Portraiture gradually returns to the front of the stage.


For William of Ockham (1285-1347), it is essential to separate Faith and Reason for the paint to evolve. Popes and great patrons, whose donations help to beautify or to restore churches are often distinctly represent kneeling at Christ's, Virgin’s or a Saint’s feet, with a miniature replica of the building concerned. It is in the second part of the fourteenth century that the portrait is emancipated and secularized finally to become a separate genre.

"Man is the model of the world"

Renaissance, its humanistic currents, its interest in the natural world and in the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome, are marking a turning point in the future of Portraiture. This time of praise of the individual is fertile when portrait is highlighting as an artistic genre. Following the developments and innovations in society and Art in general, portraits adopt several forms, poses and techniques. They grow mainly in Italy, in Florence, and in the Flanders. Each of these currents inflected the genre through sensitivity. In the land of Leonardo da Vinci, of Sandro Botticelli and of Michelangelo, the figures are often painted as busts. From this school was born the most famous portrait of the Western world: Mona Lisa. Flemish painters, Jan van Eyck, Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Dürer, drop the tempera for oil painting and produce ultra realistic paintings, partially turned away, as evidenced by the Portrait of Thomas More (1527) by Hans Holbein the younger.


In the sixteenth century, Portraiture became a noble art under the guidance of the school of Venice and of painters Giorgione and Titian. If some great artists occasionally practice this art, others make it their specialty as Rubens and Van Dyck that sublimate portrait of the Prince of England in the seventeenth century Europe, increasingly fond of the genre. So much so that the rich merchants or members of the little bourgeoisie greedy of social recognition do not hesitate to place order.

An evolutionary Art

The history of Art has always been partly dictated by the changing world, the religion and often by the geopolitical context. The history of Portraiture makes no exception to this rule: in France, after religion fightings, portraits reflect the austerity required by the post-war restrictions. In the middle of the seventeenth century, the portrait puts on his ceremonial clothes to represent the major ranking officials of the regime in a strict but advantageously way. In the Netherlands, while the Batavian artists receive no commission from the Calvinist Church, the group portraits are produced in large numbers. After rectitude and rigor, in the seventeenth century, Portraiture is still evolving with the Baroque and Rococo: movements and cheerful colors become more important than realistic finishings which dominated before. Psychological research is further worked and the artists now focus on expressions,  eyes, smile of the subject. Portraits in pastel, under the influence of Quentin de la Tour or Jean-Baptiste Perronneau, are emerging as trendy. The Enlightenment allows to arouse an current beloved by Jean-Jacques Rousseau: the sentimentality, perfectly represented in portraits of Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun for example.


(Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Quentin De La Tour)

If, during the industrial revolution, the bourgeoisie, which gained purchasing power enabling it to become a sponsor, likes to get their portrait make, the invention and development of photography allows the genre to renew. Severely hit by the major artistic movements, Portraiture is also declined between Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Realism and Impressionism. The report of artists to figuration has changed, the devaluation of the concept of similarity together with the birth of abstraction with Kandinsky in 1910, allows artists to use the portrait as a pretext. It essentially becomes a way of representing something rather than someone. The tawny and cubist are still opening the footsteps of their predecessors: the picture is less important than the painting itself.

In the 1960s and 1970s is manifested a renewed interest in the art of realistic portrait. US artists like Andy Warhol, Alex Katz and Chuck Close are making the human face the starting point of their work. Lucian Freud (grand-son of.) and Francis Bacon create eloquent paintings. The portrait "Benefits Supervisor Sleeping" (1995) by Freud was even sold for nearly $34 million at auction.


(Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995)

As it is ceremonial, psychological, allegorical, intimate, mimetic or idealized, in the history of Art, the portrait still meets the same objectives and the same questions. The will of idealization and realism remains even more relevant than ever, where each of us wants to appear in public or on social networks under one best profile.

Luis Alvarez Torezano, the love of portrait

Native of Pontedeume in the Galician province of La Coruna in Spain, Luis Alvarez Torezano grew up with a brush in hand. After making his first oil painting at the age of 14, painting became his passion, his "life partner". Although he turned professional in architecture, he continues his creative path by performing brilliantly poignant portraits. He chose his models according to what they artistically or visually emerge. After starting to reproduce a picture in pencil, he paints the portrait with acrylic emphasizing every detail. Luis Alvarez Torezano incenses the myriad of emotions that is capable of transmitting the human face and highlights each feature in order to share with the viewer the intensity that he himself felt at the first sight of his model.