Painting & drawing blog

MY FAVOURITE PORTRAITS

I’m always a great believer in learning from paintings and drawings of the past. Here are some of my favourites! I’ve restricted my list to those which are old enough to be in the public domain, 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 would 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 subject.

A similar painting which 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 role. The unknown girl who modelled 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 lovely Dulwich Picture Gallery in south-east London where the painting hangs Girl at a Window is the 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 that is designed to fool the eye (it’s too expressive for that and full of visible brushstrokes, not a smooth, hyper-real deception) the painting still an has element of trompe l’oeil in the way that the girl is leaning out of her 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 work is so loose and ‘painterly’ and yet when he paints a person they look so vital and real that they almost seem to breathe. It’s not that this painting reveals any specific details about its subject or that we know exactly what she is thinking, but unlike the Girl With A Pearl Earring we can speculate about this young woman’s character from her expression. She seems relaxed and confident and is scrutinising us back, just as we are scrutinising her. Her very ruddy complexion which Rembrandt has emphasised with the 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.

Whichever biblical figure Rembrandt may have intended his model to represent, it’s hard not to see this painting as a real ‘portrait’ of the young serving girl, to imagine that her expression reveals as a certain familiarity with the artist observing her and a slight amusement at her role as his model. Some people feel that that the way her hand is pointing towards her chest is a sexualised gesture. I’ve always seen it as the girl very naturally and self-consciously fiddling with 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 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 painting 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 the plant’s leaves wilting a little in the warm studio, it stands so strong and tall 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 when out of doors. He was extremely short sighted to the point where he struggled to learn to read at all before acquiring a pair of spectacles. Glasses of the late 18th venture were so heavy and uncomfortable that people only wore them if they were extremely short sighted. 

What makes the portrait so unique is the way that Rubens fails to meet the viewer’s gaze and instead he looks downwards, using his sense of touch to check 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 on and so Rembrandt added the pair on his face but left the original pair for fear of ruining the painting by painting them out. At a time when male portraits always emphasised the physical strength and robustness of their subject, the painting is unusual in the way that the downcast eyes 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 eye glasses, and so their inclusion was also a nod to this achievement.

Rubens and his geranium take up almost all of the picture space, just as if we are sitting right at the table with them. There is none of the usual dressing or drapery, nothing to indicate the setting or the social status of the subject. The portrait feels like the kind of poignantly naturalistic and observant study that could only be made by an artist of one of his own relatives. The face and the plant are well painted and very detailed without being overworked, communicating both Rubens’ un-confident manner but also his botanical knowledge and his horticultural triumph. This revealing painting has always struck a chord with modern audiences and it achieved a record price for an American work of art when the National Gallery of Art in Washington acquired it in 1985, although sadly 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 one of Hans Holbein’s drawings because they are all so good. However I’ve always liked this very expressive and dignified drawing of John Russell, the Earl of Bedford which is labelled ‘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, to use as the basis of the final painted oil portrait. The drawing of John Russell is looser than many of his studies and shows how brilliantly Holbein could capture someone’s appearance and bearing even with a brief sketch. 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 overemphasise what a great leap forward Holbein represented compared to 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 he casts a forensic eye, analysing 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 drew the steely gazes of political power players such as George Nevill, or George Brooke, or King Henry VIII himself with a wary respect. When he undertook commissions of people he found dull or actively disliked, you can absolutely tell his feelings towards them 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 was one of art history’s best portrait painters, despite his own 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 best known for those accomplished society portraits, and also for his sensitive and highly individualised portraits of his own daughters who he depicted a number of times at different ages. Gainsborough was one of the first artists to observe the delicacy of a child’s thin skin compared to that of an adult, and to communicate this translucency with the use of luminous blue shadows.

However my favourite child portrait by Gainsborough isn’t one of the celebrated paintings of his daughters.  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. The young boy who was named Gainsborough Dupont 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 paintings 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 individualised and un-idealised way that Gainsborough has observed 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 own 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 of them all, and it is certainly the oddest. It has an iconic status in Scotland where it hangs in the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh. This painting of the Reverend Robert Walker is so unlike almost any other portrait of its time, and it is completely different to the often staid and dull portraits of wealthy people that fill up our art galleries. Its popularity is partly due to its eccentricity and the incongruity of a reverend on ice skates.

Walker’s evident enjoyment in 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 Walker’s friend, and may have skated too. Neither man left 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, perfectly capturing the Scottish winter weather. In his dark attire Walker is silhouetted sharply against a dull 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, creating visible brushmarks that stand for sleet or rain falling in the distance. In contrast to the sketchy handling of the landscape the Reverend himself is carefully and smoothly painted, 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 he probably learned to skate, and where paintings of people skating on icy lakes by painters like Hendrik Avercamp were very popular. Walker had written 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 painting the water in a dark green-grey colour before 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 create darker lines to represent the marks in the ice made by the Reverend’s skates, and for a final touch has added a few little smears of opaque white to indicate shavings of ice flying up. The unexpected elegance of the gliding figure of the Reverend makes for a picture of real wit and beauty.

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DRAWING PEOPLE

DRAWING ANIMALS

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WATERCOLOUR

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