Monday, March 9th, 2009
Portrait of Shakespeare
Today’s New York Times has an article about a recently “unveiled” portrait of Shakespeare, thought to date from about 1610. Scholar Stanley Wells believes that this is the only portrait of Shakespeare that was created during the playwright’s lifetime. Other existing portraits (an engraving and a portrait bust) of Shakespeare were posthumous; it is thought that this recently announced painting was the model for the posthumous engraving.
A British blogger has left some more information about the Shakespeare portrait here:
This brings up a couple questions I have on portraits (and I can’t remember if I’ve already asked you this):
1. Was it only the rich, elite, royals, etc. that got portraits done? Was it very expensive?
2. Has there ever been any commentary by historians on how accurate these portraits were to how the subject really looked? I don’t know if there are ways to verify it, but it makes me wonder if it was expected that artists that did portraits of the rich or royals showed them in a “flattering” light?
Generally, portraiture was limited to royalty and the wealthy. However, during the Dutch Baroque period (17th century), portraiture became more popular due to the rise of the wealthy middle class. More people wanted to have their picture made, and some artists began to specialize in portraits. In some ways, portraiture became more affordable. For example, if you were in a group portrait, your place of prominence in the portrait would depend on how much money you paid. People could pay less and still be included in the portrait, but they wouldn’t have a prominent position or be as detailed as those who had paid more money.
There is a lot of art historical commentary about portraits and their visual accuracy. In truth, portraits often were idealized; they portrayed people to look more attractive than they were in actuality. To verify visual accuracy, historians have to compare historical descriptions of people with their portraits. There are some interesting accounts of misleading portraits. Henry VIII asked Hans Holbein to paint am accurate portrait of Anne of Cleves, a possible future wife for the king. Henry was very anxious to meet this beautiful bride but was disappointed when he finally saw her. In fact, Sir Horace Walpole described the ugly woman as the “Flanders mare.” Wikipedia has an accurate story about Henry VIII and Anne: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_of_Cleves
However, some artists didn’t flatter their subjects at all. It is thought that Francisco Goya thought the royal family of Charles IV was too stupid to realize that he had painted them in an unflattering light. I think this portrait is so fun, I think I’m going to write a post on it soon. For the time being, though, you can look at a portrait here:
To give you an idea of what people have said about this painting, one critic said the group looks like “a grocer and his family who have just won the big lottery prize.” Ha!