As a portrait painter, my ultimate duty is to stop time. Sometimes it even involves going so far as to turn back the hands of time. In a few instances, I've even raised the dead. Of course, in no case have I actually done any of these things, but through the magic of painting I would at least have appeared to. Of course today, the magic art of photography makes it all easier, but it might surprise some people to realise that posthumous portraits were done long before photography made it almost easy. In some cases, other portraits were used as reference material, sometimes there were sketches made shortly after death, sometimes such works were based solely upon the recollections of the artist and/or those close to the deceased. At other times, portraits are sometimes simply ageless. Jean-Auguste Ingres once spent twelve years working on a single portrait. His painting of Madame Montessier, finished in 1856, captures her timeless beauty between the ages of 23 and 35. Dorian Gray notwithstanding, that work may hold the record for stopping the hands of time.
Perhaps the Dutch with their vanitas still-lifes, and portraits employing similar symbols of life, vanity, and death, were most concerned with the temporal elements of portraiture. A self-portrait by the little-known Dutch painter, David Bailly, painted in 1651, is an interesting example. The painter portrays himself at the age of forty displaying a smaller portrait of himself in a nearly identical pose and clothes at the age of 20, while all about him are paintings of his parents and other ancestors, as well as a skull, an extinguished candle, wilting roses, beads, and other symbolic elements representing the passage of time. It's as depressing as it is fascinating.
One of Domenico Ghirlandaio's most touching works, Portrait of an Old man with a Young boy painted around 1490, depicts a deceased, no doubt much beloved, grandfather, literally warts and all, as he warmly gazes down upon the delicately sweet face of his grandson, who appears to be around six years old. The contrast in their ages and appearances is stunning, sobering, almost staggering. Yet there is such a tender, cross-generational bonding between the sixty-year-old man (ancient for that day and age) and the young boy, that we quickly get past the ravages of old age and the sweetness of youth to linger upon the very personal, unspoken exchange of love between the two.
Aside from extensive self-portraits, such as those by Rembrandt, we seldom see any portraits painted of a single individual by a single artist over a wide span of years. Diego Velázquez, however, offers us this opportunity in his portraits of Spain's King Philip IV. The first, dating from 1624, depicts the king at age 19 in armour with a turned up collar and stunning red sash. Even though the king's features are hardly attractive, his lips too full, his nose too long and curved, his chin jutting noticeably, the portrait is stunning both for its honesty and for the powerful, youthful image and character it captures in the figure of the young king. Just nine years later, Velázquez again portrays Philip, this time as a dashing young hunter, full length, dressed in conservative black garb, accompanied by his dog and an exceedingly long rifle against an idealised countryside. By this time he has grown a trademark handlebar moustache which somewhat distracts from his still no less unattractive features. And finally, in 1655, we see Velázquez’s painting of the king, 31 years older than the first, appearing still more mature of course; but somehow, by now his distinctive family features seem more in tune with his age. Dressed this time in solid black with a standard, upturned collar, we hardly notice, and in any case don't dwell upon, the size and shape of his features as we observe his simple kingly presence. Philip declined to be painted again in old age because of his old age.
I've always been fascinated by the effects of age on the human face. As a junior in college one summer, I undertook to paint a large, experimental study in which I divided a square canvas some 48" each way into 64 squares, each 8"x8." In each one, I painted a sort of mini-portrait, starting with a one-year-old baby (my sister) in the upper left-hand corner and ending with a 64-year-old man in the lower right-hand corner. (I was a glutton for punishment even then.) Each image was painted a year older than the one before it. Background colours in each square changed gradually from a baby blue in the first square to a vivid blue at age 32, lightening again to the same light blue (senior blue?) at age 64. I don't think I ever did a painting in my life that attracted such attention and deep study at art shows or received such interesting comments as did this work. Rather than stopping the hands of time I sped them up. It was frightening.