Among the greatest portraits, there are certain ones that fascinate me: portraits with presence.
These paintings depict both famous and everyday people who may look back at us with a penetrating, meaningful stare. Or they might look down or away, in an intriguing way. I feel that I recognize these characters. They seem fully alive and have both a fascinating personality and an interesting history. I want to know the story in that gaze. I feel presence.
What is in this presence, and how did the artist achieve it? Does it only have to do with the handling of the eyes? I’m not talking about those shifty eyes in portraits of ancestors that follow you around the room. I mean eyes that seem to penetrate into you. You feel the presence of a person who and you believe they really once existed. And this is that person. The eyes look at you so intently that if you turned away you would still feel you are being watched.
Juan de Pareja by Diego Velasquez
Is this presence merely the result of the skill, draughtsmanship, paint handling? All of these and more are present in the work of a sophisticated master such as the Spanish 17th-century master Diego Velasquez in his portrait of his servant Juan de Pareja. Does it go beyond skill and have something more to do with an emotional connection between artist and subject? An artist at the top of their game connects with a sitter who in real life may have had a presence that was captivating? For some of the portraits shown here such as Velasquez’s Juan, there is a known story or at least some fragment of a story. We wonder about their stories and the story of the artist and the sitter and was exchanged between them.
It is said that Velazquez created his portrait of Juan as a showpiece to fully display his abilities to bring a person to life on canvas, to recreate their image with such intense realism that a viewer experiencing the painting alongside the real subject would be astonished. In fact, Velazquez took the painting all the way to Rome accompanied by his servant, in order to procure a historic commission with Pope Innocent X.
Pope Innocent X by Diego Velasquez
He would present servant and painting together in order to astonish potential clients with his magical ability to create a perfect living likeness on canvas. Velasquez’s strategy worked and he secured the commission. Velasquez created a mesmerizing portrait of the Pope this painting that was in its own right astonishing. Not flattering, the portrait presented Innocent X as a Machiavellian character whose gazed bores into you as if he knows exactly what is in your thoughts as you look back at the canvas. The Pope himself said that the portrait was too true and it was reported that people entering the special chamber where the painting was hung in dim light were initially startled, believing the Pope himself was present.
You can read all about this in Laura Cumming’s excellent book Vanishing Velasquez
John Godsalve by Hans Holbein
We know little about the relationship between court painter Hans Holbein and sitter Sir John Godsalve (c.1505–1556) but that doesn’t prevent us from wondering about a portrait that is striking and implies a special bond. Godsalves’ expression contains a gaze that both, sees into you and holds something back at the same time.
Similar to the way we respond to an abstract visual stimulus by perceiving a familiar pattern that translates to a recognizable form such as a face (pareidolia), we respond to faces subjectively and read emotions into them that may or may or may not be there. I believe the best portraits, the ones that have a presence, intensify this emotion-reading response.
“Holbein’s drawings give a genuine and electrifying sense of encounter between artist and subject. They make 16th-century people uncannily alive. The way John Godsalve looks shyly out of his sketch is unforgettable.” wrote Jonathan Jones in the
As Jones’ comment demonstrates, we see/read emotions into expressions, both in life and in portraits. I get the reference to shyness but it wasn’t my first response. Over time, I read a complex web of emotions into Gonsalves’ look, including the sense that there was some kind of bond or kinship between artist and sitter, while at the same time, there is a look of respect, deference and yes, shyness.
Isabella d’Este by Titian
Another compelling portrait with a story. You don’t have to know anything about the fascinating history of Isabella d’ Este, Marchioness of Mantua, leader, and patroness of the arts, to be drawn to this painting which hangs in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. I am more curious about this apparently young woman the longer I look at this painting.
Isabella is one of the few women who ruled a state and had the power to commission artists to shape her image according to her wishes. She commissioned many great Renaissance artists to portray her, including Leonardo and the great Venetian painter Titian. Once again the story of the painting contributes to its unique allure. I had imagined enigmatic Isabella sitting across from Titian, not quite looking at him, for the many hours it would take him to complete the portrait. In reality, Titian painted this when she was about fifty-two. Dissatisfied with an earlier painting Titian made of her as she looked, she asked him to make her young and beautiful. And that is how we now see her now.
The Fayoum Portraits
When a British archeologist excavated a vast cemetery in Fayum, an oasis region in Egypt, from the first and second centuries AD, between 1887 and 1889, he found 150 portraits painted on wood panels by anonymous artists. Each one of them was linked to a mummified body. The Fayum Portraits are a large collection of paintings of individuals of a Greek community in Egypt. Their portrayal predates the Renaissance by 1000 years. These are not persons of rank in any manner. Everyday folk who were painted for the afterlife, they strike us today with an immediacy and presence. They haven’t been idealized and I feel that I could encounter these characters in the city street of today. I have a similar response to Holbein’s portrayal of the sixteenth century British.
Many have remarked that they are the Oldest Modernist Paintings
Kamakura Period Sculpture Portrait by Unkei
Unkei the master of the great Kamakura period in twelfth-century Japan created a masterful image of Asanga, legendary fourth century AD founder of the Yogacara school. Whereas Titian conjured a convincing youthful version of Isabella d”Este. Unkei sculpted someone from centuries earlier and brought him to life. He worked in a realist style and skill level akin to those of the masters of the Renaissance but he did it two hundred years earlier. He portrayed a convincing version of a solemn, compassionate Asanga as a specific individual rather than a stock type. It would be interesting to see him side by side with Velasquez’ forbidding Pope Innocent X! Very little is known about the artist Unkei’s life story, so we can only know him through his work.
A Couple’ by Saul Steinberg
Neither of them is really ‘there’ yet together they have presence.