Painting & drawing blog

MY FAVOURITE PORTRAITS

I’m always a great believer in learning from paintings and drawings of the past. I’ve restricted this list of favourites here to works which are old enough for the artist’s copyright to have elapsed, but they are still wonderful portraits which still speak to us through the generations and can teach us something today.

Girl at a Window, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, c.1645

(Known as) Girl at a Window, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606-1669), c.1645
Photo credit: Dulwich Picture Gallery

I’d make a guess that if you polled a lot of portrait artists on their favourite painter, Rembrandt would probably come out on top. No one else has so convincingly rendered flesh in paint, or more movingly conveyed the humanity of their sitter. None of his portraits are as popular with the general public as Vermeer’s much loved ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, but whilst I admire that painting immensely on a technical level, it doesn’t really speak to me as a portrait because it is so unreadable, and offers no insight into its subect.

The painting I’ve always found far more compelling than Girl With a Pearl Earring is this one: Rembrandt’s ‘Girl at a Window’ from 1645 in which another unrecorded young woman enigmatically returns the viewer’s gaze. There are further similarities with Vermeer’s painting, such as the fact that neither is really a true portrait – both paintings are really genre pieces in which the artist has dressed their subject to play a character or to perform a role. The girl who modeled for Rembrandt’s picture is possibly dressed as a character from a Jewish myth, but she is still much more than a clothes horse in this painting.

At the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south-east London where the painting hangs (a lovely gallery and well worth visiting) Girl at a Window is a star exhibit. I’m clearly not the only one who finds to so intriguing because you’ll always see people lingering in front of it, unable to tear themselves away. Whilst not a true trompe l’oeil designed to fool the eye (it’s too loose and expressive for that, not a smooth and ‘hyper real’ deception) the painting still an has element of trompe l’oeil in the way that the girl is leaning out of a window and peering at us from the formless darkness. The painting itself is shaped as a window, almost as if we are looking out of our own window onto a back street and seeing a neighbour, looking out of hers.

Rembrandt always fascinates me because his paint handling is so loose and ‘painterly’ yet when he paints a person they look so vital and real that they almost seem to breathe, and this painting is a prime example of that quality. It’s not that this painting reveals any specific details about the subject or that we know exactly what she is thinking, but unlike the Girl with a Pearl Earring’s face we can speculate about this young woman’s character from her expression. She seems relaxed and fairly confident and is scrutinizing us back, just as we are scrutinizing her. Her very ruddy complexion which Rembrandt has emphasized with glowing pink and orange paint on her cheeks and the tan line that’s suggested where her sleeves are rolled up indicate that she was a servant, unused to having her portrait painted.

Whatever biblical figure Rembrandt may have intended his model to represent, it’s hard not to see this as a real ‘portrait’ and to read her as the young serving girl that she was, maybe familiar with the artist painting her and slightly amused by her role as his model. Some people feel that that the way her hand is pointing towards her chest is a sexualized gesture; at the same time however you could also see it as the girl very naturally and unthinkingly touching the string of pearls that she wasn’t accustomed to wearing.

Rubens Peale with a Geranium, Rembrandt Peale, c. 1801

Rubens Peale with a Geranium, Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860), c.1801
Open Access image. Photo credit: National Gallery of Art, Washington

My next favourite painting conceals nothing about its subject and is an unusual and surprisingly vulnerable portrait, particularly of a male sitter. It’s also by another Rembrandt: the twenty-three year old American painter Rembrandt Peale who painted his seventeen year old brother Rubens in 1801 sitting at a table with his prize geranium, which was reportedly the first to be grown in the New World. Rubens Peale was a shy young man and an ardent botanist, and the portrait is sometimes said to be like a ‘double’ portrait in that the geranium he is virtually caressing is nearly eclipsing the gangly teenager who grew it. Despite its leaves wilting a little in the warm studio it stands so strong and tall that it’s as if it is trying to edge Rubens out of the picture space to take all the limelight for itself.

Rubens and Rembrandt were sons of the painter, inventor and naturalist Charles Willson Peale who named all of his ten children after famous artists and scientists. Rubens was sickly child and had been kept out of the sun, banned from playing with other children and made to wear a paper mask. He was extremely short sighted to the point where he struggled to learn to read at al,l before acquiring a pair of spectacles. Glasses of the late 18th venture were so heavy and uncomfortable that people only wore them if they literally could see nothing about them.

What makes the portrait so uncommon is the way that Rubens fails to meet the viewer’s gaze. He looks downwards rather than struggle to see the brother who was just in front of him and is using his hands to feel for the moistness of the soil in the flower pot. Originally he was painted just with the spectacles that are grasped in his left hand, but after the portrait was completed it was felt that he didn’t look enough like himself without his glasses and so Rembrandt added the pair on his face too and left the pair in the hand for fear of ruining the painting. At a time when male portraits always emphasized the physical strength and robustness of their subject, the painting is unusual in the way that the downcast gaze and the dark shadows and pools of light created by the spectacles draw attention to Ruben’s impediment. However the boys’ father Charles Willson Peale had actually invented new forms of the eyeglass, and so their inclusion was also a nod to this achievements.

Rubens and his geranium take up almost all of the picture space as if we are sitting at the table with them, with no indication of setting or social status. The portrait feels like the kind of poignantly naturalistic study that could only be made by an artist of one of his own relatives, whose character he of course knew in great detail. Without being overworked his face and the plant are well painted and very detailed, communicating both Rubens’ un-confident manner but also his botanical knowledge and his horticultural triumph, the geranium. Unusually sensitive and revealing, the portrait has always struck a chord with modern audiences and achieved a record price for an American work of art when the National Gallery of Art in Washington acquired it in 1985, although sadly for some reason it’s not currently out on view there.

John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford, Hans Holbein, c.1532-43
John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford, Hans Holbein the Younger, c.1532-43
Photo credit: The Royal Collection ©2009 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

I really could have picked any of Hans Holbein’s drawings for my list of favourite portraits, they are all so good. However I’ve always liked this very expressive sketch of John Russell, the Earl of Bedford which was labelled as ‘I Russell Ld Privy Seale…..with one Eye’. The drawing was a preparatory work made in coloured chalks and heightened with a little white paint. Holbein made a careful drawing from life of all of his subjects, and used this as the basis of the final painted oil portrait. This drawing is sketchier than many of his studies and shows how brilliantly Holbein could capture someone’s appearance and bearing even with a fast and loose drawing. It is included in a large collection of eighty portrait drawings held by the Royal Collection which are now displayed at Buckingham Palace, and are really worth the price of the ticket by themselves.

It’s hard to overemphasize what a great leap forward Holbein represented from the stiff and generic portraits of the Tudor court when he arrived from Germany and began to undertake commissions. Even Holbein’s own finished oil portraits however cannot match the immediacy and individuality of his electrifying preparatory drawings. They are often described as ‘haunting’ and I think that’s because Holbein’s draughtsmanship is so good that his lifelike subjects appear like ghosts from almost five hundred years ago – only the Elizabethan hats give away that they are not our contemporaries. They appear just to us today as they did when they sat in front of Holbein to pose for their portraits, and you feel that not even a photograph could have told you more about their appearance.

Holbein’s drawings of women are usually less insightful than his male subjects, because the poses and expressions are very demure and often downcast. With the men however he casts a forensic eye, analyzing both not only their features but also their personalities. I think what I find so endlessly fascinating about his drawings is that interplay between artist and subject, the way that you so often feel you can clearly detect Holbein’s own feelings about the people he painted. However accurately observed, every portrait is of still filtered through the artist and Holbein exhibits a wary respect as he draws the steely gazes of political power players such as George Nevill, 5th Baron Bergavenny, or George Brooke, 9th Baron Cobham or King Henry VIII himself. When he undertook commissions of people he found dull or actively disliked, you can absolutely tell his feelings in his preparatory sketches: witness his wonderful drawing of the treacherous Sir Richard Southwell, who helped to condemn Holbein’s friend Sir Thomas More to death. Holbein makes him look pompous, sly and a little ridiculous, records his scars and stubble, and made a small note to the side of the drawing that says ‘The eyes a little yellow’.

Portrait of an Unknown Youth, Thomas Gainsborough c.1768

Portrait of an Unknown Youth (The Pitminster Boy), Thomas Gainsborough c.1768
Gainsborough’s House, on loan from a private collection
Photo credit: Gainsborough’s House, photographer Matthew Hollow

Gainsborough is undoubtedly one of art history’s best portraitists despite his antipathy for the genre that he called that ‘curs’d face business’. Portraiture was a lucrative and necessary evil that distracted him from his favourite landscape painting, and forced him to pander to the vanity of his aristocratic subjects. Today he’s known for those accomplished society portraits, and also so for his sensitive and highly individualized portraits of his own daughters who he depicted a number of times at different ages. Gainsborough was one of the first artists to realize how different a child’s delicate thin skin is to that of an adult and to communicate its translucency with the use of delicate blue shadows.

My favourite child portrait by Gainsborough isn’t one of the celebrated paintings of his daughters, however.  It’s a work which hangs in Gainsborough’s House in Suffolk, the place where he spent his childhood and which is now a museum dedicated to him. Gainsborough’s House is well worth a visit and has some great paintings and drawings on display. The highlight for me is definitely this one: it’s known as ‘Portrait of an Unknown Youth ‘(The Pitminster Boy) and the subject has recently been identified as Gainsborough’s own fourteen year old nephew who was called Gainsborough Dupont. The young boy who was apprenticed to him and worked as his studio assistant. He is here shown carrying his uncle’s palette and rather nervously holding up a brush for him.

Portraits of wealthy aristocratic children were common, but those of working children are quite rare and this one is just such a wonderful and accomplished painting. I love the colours, the dynamic pose and the individualized and un-idealized way that Gainsborough has painted his nephew’s features. The rapidness of the brushstrokes gives the impression that he has been authentically captured from observation, seen slightly from above as if from his uncle’s viewpoint. Gainsborough has perfectly conveyed his youth, slight awkwardness and extreme attentiveness and desire to please.

Portrait of an Unknown Youth (The Pitminster Boy), Thomas Gainsborough c.1768
Reverend Robert Walker (1755-1808) Skating on Duddingston Loch, Sir Henry Raeburn c. abt.1795
Creative commons – CC by NC
Photo credit: National Galleries of Scotland

My last portrait is probably the best well known and it is certainly the oddest. It has an iconic status in Scotland where it hangs in the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh. It’s so unlike almost any other portrait of its time, and is completely different to the sometimes staid and boring portraits of wealthy people that fill up our art galleries. Its popularity is partly due to its eccentricity: the incongruity of a reverend on ice skates and the way that his evident enjoyment and seriousness about his hobby (which must have been considerable for him to have chosen to be depicted in this way) provides a connection with a modern audience which is so often lacking in an old portrait painting. Its celebrated Scottish artist Henry Raeburn was a friend of the Reverend Robert Walker and may have skated too. Neither left any documentation revealing the origins of the portrait but perhaps Raeburn was intrigued enough by his friends’ skating talent to suggest the setting and the unusual profile pose.

The painting is technically brilliant. It captures the Scottish winter weather perfectly and in his very dark attire Walker is silhouetted sharply against a dull and overcast sky, heavy with snow clouds. You can almost feel the icy chill in the air and feel the strong wind that is blowing the clouds, suggested by the rapid brushstrokes. Thin paint is scraped roughly over the canvas above a lighter underlayer, so that it almost looks like sleet falling in the distance. In contrast to the sketchy handling of the landscape the Reverend himself is carefully and smoothly painted in small soft strokes, whilst his ice skates are depicted with more detail than anything else in the image.

Reverend Walker had been brought up by his English parents in the Netherlands where both skating and paintings of people skating on icy lakes by painters like Hendrik Avercamp were very popular. Walker wrote books about the country, and so the setting of the painting may be a nod to his affinity with Holland. In Scotland, he was a member of the Edinburgh Skating Club which was the oldest of its kind in Britain and met on the lochs of Duddingston or Lochend during the winter. The ability to skate well was a prerequisite for joining the Club, and there was an entrance test involving skating a circle on each foot and then jumping over three hats piled on top of one another.

Here the Reverend is painted in the ‘travelling position’ with his arms folded on his chest. This position was designed to allow the skater to move as speedily as possible by reducing wind resistance. The incisions painted in the ice around him however suggest that he is also capable of more technically challenging manoeuvres. Raeburn has cleverly achieved this effect by using a dark green-grey colour for the water and covering it with a translucent chalky glaze of white paint. He has then scratched into the glaze with the end of a brush or a palette knife to reveal the darker colour below, and for a final touch has added a few little smears of opaque white to indicate shavings of ice flying up from the Reverend’s skates. The unexpected elegance of the gliding figure of the Reverend makes for a picture of real wit and beauty.

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