My history as a portrait painter goes back over forty years. I was about fourteen when I decided to paint my first portrait. It was a self-portrait, based upon a small, wallet-size, school photo taken during my freshman year in high school. I drew it four times larger on a 14"x22" sheet of poster board and painted it in oils. Okay, so the oils bled into the cardboard, probably not the most archival surface an artist ever used. But the key element that marked its success or failure in my eyes was whether or not anyone recognised it as me. They did; but in retrospect, the likeness was only fair, at best. I still have it, though it has not seen the light of day in years. I think my first really successful portrait was one of President Eisenhower based upon a black and white near-life-size photo from a newsmagazine. I copied it the same size to my ubiquitous poster board and captured in oils what, even today, can be seen as a passable likeness. I was hooked.
What followed were dozens of drawn and painted faces, literally good, bad, and ugly. Through high school, I sold portrait drawings for a dollar each. Painted portraits cost five dollars. By the time I was a young sergeant in the air force, I was earning $25 each for my painted portraits. But I digress. Regardless of the price, size, medium, or quality of these portraits as works of art, virtually every one of them featured a recognisable likeness. And it is this one element, first, last, and foremost that makes a work of art a portrait. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to think of portrait likenesses only in terms of their naturalistic, even realistic qualities. This, of course, derives from the fact that, as the art and craft of painting developed in our western culture, would-be portrait artists struggled mightily toward the goal of creating, through the use of the picture frame, a window through which the portrait subject might forever peer out at posterity. Although tromp l'oeil is most often associated with still-lifes, it has a much older, if less considered, tradition in portraiture.
But a likeness is not always natural, much less realistic. One has only to compare the art in the editorial pages of our newspapers to see the many ways various political cartoonists manage to capture a recognisable likeness of the president, yet seldom are any two such images very similar. This, of course, involves widely diverse degrees of caricature - purposeful exaggeration - yet, in the broadest sense, these too are portraits. Though not a caricature, we find Sandro Botticelli utilising subtle exaggeration in capturing a likeness in his 1485 Portrait of a Young Man. Though we have no way of knowing just how successful he was, there is just enough idiosyncratic asymmetry to the young man's features, which seem slightly too large for his head, for us to guess that this portrait exercise may have been quite a good likeness.
However, there's no need to guess as to the degree of likeness when we have handed down to us several portraits by different artists of the same individual. England's Charles I may be one of the most recognisable figures in the pre-photographic history of man. And Anthony van Dyck, in his official position as "principalle Paynter" practically chronicled the life of this exceedingly vain monarch. This can best be seen in his 1635 Charles I in Three Positions. Here we see the artists painting the king in profile, full frontal, and three-quarter views all on the same canvas. The painting was commissioned to serve as a model for the Italian sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and was quite successful in this regard, as the marble bust is an excellent likeness as well. But the painting far surpasses its original purpose in conveying the character and personality of its subject; though even van Dyck was not above subtle flattery as can be seen by comparing it to the less idealised Charles I with his Son, James Duke of York painted by Peter Lely in 1648. The king seems less handsome, much coarser, more severe, but also more fatherly.
In the twentieth century, with photography having taken over the more mundane needs for capturing human faces on a flat surface, painted portraiture (like painting in general) began to embraced the element of simplification as well as exaggeration. Amadeo Modigliani, an Italian ne'er do well artist painting in Paris during the first decades of the century, painted little else but portraits. His work is characterised by extremely stylised flat figures, beautiful in their linear harmonies but about as far removed from any traditional tendencies toward tromp l'oeil portraiture as imaginable. Yet we see in his portrait of fellow artist Chaim Soutine the same attention to the characteristic features of his sitter as the best of Botticelli or Van Dyck in Modigliani's pursuit of his own form of devotion to the portrait likeness. English artist Francis Bacon goes even further in simplifying, exaggerating, and even distorting the faces and features of his portrait subjects. His Three Studies for a Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne, painted in 1965, is reminiscent of Van Dyck's Charles I. Yet, as hideous as his portrait images might seem, we come away from staring at them with a surprisingly complete feeling for what the woman looks like and, indeed, her strong, haughty nature as well.