Friday, May 20, 2011

Picture Makes Perfect, Part 1

I admit it: I am not a very good photographer. I never want to interrupt things to take a picture, and when I do, someone’s head, arm, foot, or other body part gets cut off or everything turns out entirely too fuzzy. I understand the value of documenting memories, of chronicling changes in height and weight and hair style and maturity (or lack thereof). I just can’t seem to use a camera for that purpose. But nineteenth century families had another way of capturing memories: portraits.

Let’s say that you had just married, and your husband was determined to memorialize the beauty of his young bride. You might hire a painter to come to your estate and create your likeness on canvas. Families would also have children painted at various ages, much as we take pictures today. And if a gentleman or lady had accomplished something of particular note, well that was cause for a celebratory painting as well.

More-famous artists had people come sit in their studios to be painted. You might sit for four hours or more, at different times, for the artist to capture you to his or her satisfaction. One of the more popular painters at the time was said to require 100 hours of your time! And forget about 1-hour photo: portraits could easily take up to a year to complete.

Most portrait painters in the nineteenth century were men for two main reasons. First, the more celebrated painters had been trained at the Royal Academy, which only admitted men because women were deemed too delicate to withstand the nude anatomy sessions where they learned to sketch and paint the human body. Supposedly when the Royal College of Art admitted women in 1837, the male models in the women’s anatomy sessions wore full suits of armor! Then too, a lady’s reputation was strained if she had to be alone with gentleman for hours at a time, studying them in the depth required for a good portrait.

The art of portraiture perhaps reached its zenith in the nineteenth century in England. Painters like Sir Thomas Lawrence and Sir Joshua Reynolds excelled at capturing not only likenesses reliably, but the person’s favorite pastimes. It was said a true artist captured the essence of the person, giving a view into the soul. I’m not sure what that says for this fellow.

But what if you couldn’t afford a portrait or you wanted something a little more portable than a wall-size masterpiece? I’ll explain about that next Friday.

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