Identity in Portraiture

To what extent can the true identity of a person be captured in a portrait?



noun: portrait; plural noun: portraits; modifier noun: portrait
a painting, drawing, photograph, or engraving of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders. (Oxford English Dictionary 2010)

The dictionary definition of a portrait describes only what a portrait looks like; an artistic representation of a person. Aristotle stated that “it is the sitter’s inner significance that constitutes true reality”. Can a portrait only ever represent the ‘shell’ of a person? I aim to discover whether it is possible to capture this ‘inner significance’ and explore and discuss the struggle to create a ‘true’ portrait. I hope to show that the simple dictionary definition of a portrait falls short of the reality, when an artist decides to capture something deeper.

When researching this topic the word ‘Identity’ has become of great interest to me. Identity is the fact of being who or what a person or thing is. I am fascinated by what ‘identity’ truly means and the complexity of it. Identity captures not just what a person is, but who they are too. People talk about wanting to “develop a particular identity” or of being “afraid of losing their identity”. This isn’t the identity in a photograph or identity card, it is something profound – the very essence of someone’s being – their ‘inner significance’. I aim to show that a photograph, despite being the most ‘accurate’ representation of someone, is actually not as good at capturing their true identity compared with other forms of art.

In Joanna Woodall’s book “Portraiture: Facing the Subject” she discusses the concept of a division of the person as a living body and their real or true self. A ‘vivid physiognomic likeness’ (1997- p. 9) cannot represent the true identity of the sitter. We tend to reduce portraiture to how people look. Woodall believes that trying to achieve a photographic likeness to the sitter can act as a barrier to creating a portrait of their true ‘identity’.

It would seem obvious that the easiest way to capture the essence of a person is through photography, because you get a true and exact representation of that person. But is this true and does this medium really capture the essence of someone? I don’t think so. A photograph may well be able to show the likeness of a person, but this is a likeness at one fleeting moment. Capturing the true identity of someone is so much more than a fleeting moment.

Hyperrealism is a technique of painting practiced by many contemporary artists today. See for example Chuck Close who paints detailed portraits from very high resolution photographs. These photographs can be presented as an art work in their own right, are quite amazing to see, and use highly technical skills. But ironically, given their ‘accuracy’ I do not believe these paintings give any more of the ‘essence’ of this sitter than the photograph from which they have been copied. What is the point?

Photography has an aspect of artifice – it is easy to alter your identity in a photograph. You can choose how to present yourself in a photograph and influence peoples perceptions of you. We see this every day on social media. Literally thousand’s of ‘selfies’ are uploaded every minute and

everyone of these is taken, chosen and self edited by the subject. I see these all as self portraits, not the revealing true kind. They show only what the individual wants the viewer to see. It is possible to create a false identity in this way through photographs.

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This can be compared with commissioned portraits of the monarchy and wealthy in the past which were usually highly idealised representations making reference to the sitter’s wealth/status and so forth. In Ingres’ “Napoleon on his Imperial Throne” (1806) Napoleon would have commissioned Ingres to paint him looking rich, regal and powerful. He would have only been interested in being seen as supreme ruler. Both contemporary ‘selfies’ and historical portraits of this ilk are as far from showing the true identity and central truth of a person as they can be.

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Work by Ingres (1806)

Grayson Perry describes identity as a ‘shifting and multi- layered thing’ ‘Who are you?’, (2014). I believe identity is influenced by situations and people. We may attempt to show of our selves only what we want people to see, changing our behaviour and aspects of our identity to suit a situation.

Julian Baggini claims that “I is a verb masquerading as a noun” (2011 p.10). I think this is a brilliant idea that supports my belief that great portraiture goes well beyond the superficial. Great portraits can be visited time and again; they challenge you to look and see differently on each viewing. The subject is not inanimate but shifts. Identities are further shifting because the viewer can never be objective. I am interested in finding out how much of our individual personality we project on to a portrait when looking at it. We draw conclusions about the person based on our own lives and experiences.

When looking at Rembrandt’s emotionally charged portraits at his exhibition at the National Gallery, I found it difficult to look at the paintings objectively.

‘The countenance is the portrait of the soul, and the eyes mark its intentions.’ Cicero

As with many portraits, it is the eyes that draw you in. The eyes of Rembrandt’s sitters evoke emotion. As well as getting a sense of the sitter’s emotional state, I believe that each individual’s experience of the portraits is different because of Rembrandt’s ability to provoke an emotion in the viewer and perhaps to recall a time in their life where they felt an emotion similar to the one of the sitter. This emotional recall makes the portrait personal and forces the viewer to see the paintings in an entirely subjective way.

In a completely different way to Rembrandt, Greyson Perry also conveys the personality of his sitters. In his exhibition “Who Are You?” at the National Portrait Gallery his series of fourteen portraits challenge the idea that a portrait needs to be representational of the sitter. He describes a portrait artist as ‘part psychologist, part detective’ (‘Who are you’ (2014). Meaning by this that one cannot make a successful portrait without knowing more than just a persons appearance. His unconventional portraits reveal much more about his subject than they would if they were just representational.

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Work by Greyson Perry (2014)

Despite the unusual approach he has to creating portraiture I think they say so much about the sitter’s true essence and being. Portraits can reveal truths on who we are. In Greyson Perry’s making of these portraits he asked the viewer a question that shaped his portrait of them; “who are you?”, an accurate portrayal of a person captures them as a whole, perhaps revealing to them truths they didn’t even know. Greyson Perry says a great portrait can distill everything you’ve seen and know about a person in to one image.

Mark Quinn’s ‘Self’ (2005) is a self portrait sculpture made from his own frozen blood. I believe this work shows identity in portraiture on a completely new level, exposing real truth. Not only does this sculpture have the form of the artist, but it is actually made from his own body. Rather than an inert solid material the artist uses himself to create something that not only looks like, but literally is him. Marc Quinn says that using his own blood ‘as opposed to traditional materials keeps the work alive’. (APF News Agency 2009) I think this work has the unique quality of portraying something almost supernatural, as if the artist has created another version of himself. The work is re-made every five years, over which time Quinn collects a huge ten pints of blood, more than is in an entire human body. He aims to repeat this process every five years until he is no longer physically able. He documents the signs of ageing, as he changes, his blood changes and so does the form of the sculpture. Something that I find particularly interesting about this sculpture is that it can be seen as an analogy for something being alive. The solid blood form has to rely on electricity to keep it frozen, and alive, just as humans breathe air. The sculpture exists as a form, but if it melts it is simply a puddle. The fragility of the material parallels to the fragility of life, there is a tension and energy about each sculpture, as if it is on the verge of reverting to its natural state.

Work by Marc Quinn (2005-)

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Work by Rembrandt 1600’s


Marc Quinn’s ‘Blood Head’ sculptures have been inspired by Rembrandt’s self portraits. Quinn says that the journey in “Rembrandt’s work from young man to old man has inspired this
series” (Tate: ‘Artist’s Talk’ 2011). I feel that same supernatural energy created in Marc Quinn’s ‘Self’ is true of Rembrandt’s self portraits, in the honest and self confessional way in which he paints.

For me, when creating a portrait, the process of painting a person is a journey that reveals their identity over time. Portraits, when successfully executed, can capture the essence and identity of a person.

Essence: the intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something, especially something abstract, which determines its character. (Oxford English Dictionary 2010)

As I have explored throughout this essay, there are many ways in which this can be done. A simple representational likeness, which perhaps would have been seen as a successful portrait in the past, is not enough. After the artist has made his work, it is the viewer that interprets and decodes it. In this way, the artist has a relationship with the viewer that lasts over time. Portraits that capture the true essence of someone are ‘living’ pieces of art, much more than those that ‘accurately’ represent someone, even though superficially these may be more ‘life like’.

If the artist is lucky enough to paint someone who allows them to reveal their true identity, or is brave enough to produce a self portrait that reveals theirs, these works of art will immortalise the essence of the person, changing as they age, providing a lasting and evolving image.

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