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Monday, 21 August 2017

Why Contemporary Portraiture is Important

In a time where social media and electronic communication have become the norm, the idea of commissioning a portrait still seems to be incredibly alluring, and we thought we would offer a few reasons as to why this might be... 

Before technology began its journey to world domination, portraiture was an invaluable way of documenting historical figures, and transmitting them to the current, and future, generations.  Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of ‘Queen Charlotte’ (image below) may not have delivered him the Queen’s favour but it did show us a side of the monarch which would never have been revealed had Lawrence been more sensitive to his subject’s vanity.  Sadly the painting was not accepted by his sitter, and the painting remained with Lawrence.  From then on he decided to flatter his sitters a little more in order to keep a constant stream of commissions.   

Queen Charlotte, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1789, oil on canvas, 239.5cm x 147cm © National Gallery, London

Today, with the help of an unlikely accomplice in photography, portrait painters are less inclined, or socially bound, to flatter their subjects.  Photography and videos document people daily, and because of this, portraits are naturally compared to photographs of the sitter for verification as to whether the painting is a good likeness.  The artist has more pressure than ever before to paint an accurate representation, or face a rather short-lived career.  


The Dean of Westminster, by Nick Philipps,                    Lady, by Jamie Coreth, oil on canvas, 2016
oil on canvas, 2012

Photography provides a ‘quick-fix’ kind of portrait which can be captured by everyone.  This has actually increased the popularity of painting a portrait from life by highlighting the rare talent needed to do this.  A method adopted by some of history’s greatest portraitists, including Titian, Sargent, Velázquez and Lawrence is the sight-size technique.  The method instructs the artist to place the sitter and the canvas side by side, allowing the artist to view both from a measured distance and translate the sitter onto the canvas, checking proportions and accuracy as they go. The portraits above by Nicky Philipps and Jamie Coreth are two accomplished examples of modern day practitioners of the sight-size technique. Their portraits are accurate, full of depth and have a healthy amount of paint applied to them – another benefit to the method is that the artist gains confidence in using lots of paint making the portraits more sumptuous with full, dominant brushstrokes.  To a sitter, the idea of being painted by an artist using  such a historical technique practised by artists of the past adds more than just an element of romance, it feels like you are also taking a place in history.   With the speed of every day life constantly accelerating, there is also a push toward that which is not instantaneous, and the gentle, organic process of portrait sittings could not embody this more.

Nowadays having a therapist is as normal as having a bath, and a portrait painter is essentially your therapist with a paint brush.  No phones, no gadgets, no internet, just you and another person in a room talking, listening to music, or sitting in silence.  A rare occurrence in our era, but somehow even the most high-powered businessmen obey the ‘no phone rule’ and embrace the peace and quiet for the two hour sessions. 

Two portraits of a man, by Rosalie Watkins, oil on canvas, 2014

Rosalie Watkins painted the two portraits of the client pictured above.  Originally only one portrait was commissioned (the left-hand image) to be a corporate painting for the client’s company.  However during the sittings the client decided to commission an informal portrait to keep for his family.   They are great examples of how one person can be painted from life multiple times and, although both physically resemble the sitter, capture very different sides of his character.  For the corporate portrait the sitter chose to wear office attire and hold work-related documents.  He is in ‘business mode’ and this persona seems to filter into his disposition provoking a more serious facial expression.  The painting style is tighter which again reflects the more guarded personality, which is also emphasised by the pose, clothing and props.  The second portrait has a looser style.  The sitter’s clothing (he is wearing the same shirt as the first portrait, but with an open collar) and the softer expression that hints at a smile, creates a far more informal depiction of the sitter.  He is relaxed, and a warmer side of his character comes through.  The client was happy with both portraits, they each fulfilled the purpose for which they were painted, and serve as fantastic examples of how well portraits can convey personalities.  Rosalie got to know the sitter even more during the second set of sittings and this has allowed her to find a different side of his personality, arguably a more intimate one, very fitting for a portrait which is to hang in his family home. 

‘Celebrity’ has taken on a whole new meaning in the last century, there are so many of them, all written about and photographed constantly, yet we still have an insatiable hunger to know more about them, and portraits provide this.  Johnathan Yeo’s series on Cara Delevingne in 2016, which was displayed at The Museum of National History at Frederiksborg Castle, in Denmark, portrays the actress in a variety of poses with different props and outfits.  The paintings allude to the current fascination with ‘the selfie’ and how obscuring or revealing different parts of the sitter can manipulate the way in which they are viewed.  Yeo’s choice of a young, upcoming actress who is constantly in the media brought welcome attention to the world of portraiture and gave it a refreshing, modern feel which appeals to the younger generations looking to buy, and commission, works of art.

Three of the nine paintings of Cara Delevingne, by Jonathan Yeo, 2016 © Jonathan Yeo

Our last explanation for the increasing interest in contemporary portraiture is the simple theory that people like to spend their money on a painting of someone that means something to them.   It is two presents in one – a present for oneself, as well as a present in the form of an experience, for the sitter.   Contemporary portraits rebuff the notion that they are celebrating ancestry.  They shed the sometimes ‘dour’ image which this idea conjures and embrace everything that is vibrant and expressive about modern painting, while still maintaining the physical likeness of the sitter. The static stiffness of many past portraits is replaced by exciting new ones which experiment with different techniques and breathe life into the sitter, while still creating beautiful works of art.

Man, by Sam Wadsworth, oil on canvas, 2015 

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