Learning about portraits from the masters

I spent an afternoon in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery a few weeks ago looking at portraits. Not photographic portraits, but old fashioned oil paintings. I wanted to get to grips with what the painstaking craftsmen of the past thought made a great portrait, and how to apply to this to our digital point, compose, click era.

The first picture I want to look at is a Portrait of Dr John Ash, 1788, by Joshua Reynolds. 

Here it is: 

This portrait is interesting for three reasons. First, it's a heavily coded painting. I don't intend to go into this here, but, if you're interested, this site goes into some detail about what all the various elements mean. The second reason is that it's a very typical image for its time, by Joshua Reynolds, an extremely prolific and popular portraitist. The third is that it has a lot to teach us about portraiture — or, at least, it lays down some important challenges to our modern photographic style.

First, let's look at the frame and the mounting. This image is taken 'as is', without any special lighting. I've deliberately shown it relatively small, because I only want to discuss the main features. Oil portraits from the great period of portrait painting are almost always elaborately framed. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I have to say I really can't get excited about this particular frame. However, as well as holding the canvas taut, a frame is an expression of the value attached to an image. Having your portrait painted was something only the very wealthiest could afford. These days we snap away, and place images just anywhere. It's worth considering if there's a different context we can put an image in which would give it more resonance.

You'll also notice there's a good deal (actually a bad deal) of reflection on the glass. This comes from the British habit of displaying oil paintings under glass. Why? Continental European galleries don't do this. It's a reminder, perhaps, that the way an image is presented can take away much of its immediacy. 

Now to the image itself. You'll notice two things straight away — Dr Ash, and the amount of other stuff in the picture. This is absolutely typical of this era of portrait. Ash is presented with things around him that express his personality. This is not an 'environmental portrait', where, for example, an artisan is photographed in his workshop. Each of these elements has been carefully selected and carefully placed to express something about him as an individual, and yet placed in such a way that they look like it <i>could</i> be his study.

Let's look at Dr Ash. To us, the wig and gown make him look like just any other person of his era. To the original viewers, they would have expressed his seriousness, his academic qualifications, and his status in society. Actually, a doctor was a relatively low status, and perhaps this portrait makes rather too much of Dr Ash.

But look also at the colour of the gown, and the colour of the chair. Why has Reynolds chosen to put him in a red gown, and a red chair? Clearly, the gown is that colour because it is his academic gown. But why the chair? It could be any colour, and, unlike a photographer, Reynolds could have painted it any colour. Look, though, at how it changes the shape of his shoulders. The figure of Ash is far more imposing than it otherwise would have been — but Reynolds has not had to distort his actual shoulders at all. Normally we teach photographers to avoid having two objects become visually one object, but this is a case where it is used to very significant purpose. 

We should also note that, despite all of the added elements, this is a highly naturalistic picture of Ash's face. Even the lighting is 'as is' — it would not have been difficult for Reynolds to lighten the eyes, but he keeps them dark, as well as allowing the shadow to fix on the hollow of the right cheek. 

So, is this a great portrait? Not really. Reynolds must have churned these kind of pictures out by the hundred (a very good rate for an oil painter). And yet, far more attention to detail has been lavished on it that many photographers ever put into a modern photographic portrait. We are often mostly concerned with making the sitter look nice, getting them relaxed in a pose which looks good but they can hold comfortably, getting the lighting right (note that Reynolds here uses 'short' lighting), making sure the eyes are sharp, and so on. Technically speaking, Reynolds's job was a lot more demanding than ours — just try painting in oils and you'll see how hard it is — but he lavishes great attention on symbolic objects, such as the scroll, and character-revealing background.

Portraiture is supposed to reveal something about the character of the person being photographed. Most photographic portraits just try to make people look nice. We have — I would suggest — something to learn from the jobbing portraitists of the past.