Issue Number: 93
When the personal became political
In the eighteenth century the portrait shifted from status symbol to spitting image. Dorinda Outram considers how this new spotlight on the individual reflected revolutions in art, society and politics
At a time when debates raged over man’s rights to govern and think independently, portraitists too began to shift their focus. Under the sway of new political creeds, as well as neoclassicism and its aesthetic of austerity, portraitists pared back their compositions to concentrate on the individuality of the sitter before them. Suddenly, personal attributes rather than symbols, political positions rather than inherited beliefs, defined the power of a portrait.
The age of the Enlightenment was not the period of calm and abstract thought that many older interpretations have presented. On the contrary, it was framed by political revolution. The American Revolution (1776–83) resulted in the creation of a new state, one founded on man’s right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. The French Revolution (1789–95), turned the world upside down in the name of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité ’. Later, the rule of Napoleon (Consul from 1799, then Emperor 1805–14), embroiled Europe in prolonged military conflicts. After his defeat at Waterloo, the restored Bourbon dynasty shifted between conservatism and liberalism. Overthrown by the Revolution of 1830, it was succeeded by a new form of monarchy, that of the so-called ‘citizen king’, Louis-Philippe.
Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA, Portrait of King George III, 1779 Oil on canvas
All these shifting regimes carried with them social change and ideological conflict. The Enlightenment, in other words, asked provocative questions, but failed to provide any firm ground that could have prevented the fantastic disorder in Europe during this period. When one looks more closely at the Enlightenment itself, this is no wonder. Its key figures had argued long and hard over its meaning and direction. Great thinkers such as Kant, Schiller, Herder and Mendelssohn could come to no agreement, not only over the meaning of the term itself, but also on the issues of how far Enlightenment ideology should influence rulers, or penetrate down the social scale.
Yet, in spite of all this contentious debate, certain threads do appear to have been common to Enlightenment agendas throughout Europe. A belief in the rational power of the human mind to understand and organise the world paralleled the increasing validation of scientific investigation. Notions of benevolence, sentimentality, and interest in the worlds of women and children, formed an emotional triad underpinned by education and self-fashioning.
Portraiture here played a vital role and – because of its emphasis on the individual – responded with accuracy and immediacy to the debates of the day. In the American colonies, portrait painters emerged to paint the new political leaders. John Singleton Copley portrayed Samuel Adams, ‘the father of American independence’, in stark, simple terms, confronting the British royal representative with a demand that his troops leave Boston. Gilbert Stuart famously portrayed George Washington, the first President of the United States, as a distinguished ruler.
Meanwhile in England, Gainsborough and Reynolds portrayed rulers and aristocrats – as well as new subjects from the increasingly prosperous middle classes – in more informal settings compared with the staid symbolism of the previous century. In France too, on the eve of the French Revolution, aristocrats eschewed sumptuous dress and surroundings in their portraits, preferring to show themselves as thinking, feeling, virtuous beings. This can be seen in Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s portrait of the Comtesse de la Châtre, who is dressed in white muslin, unadorned and without any obvious sign of her status, her unpowdered hair spilling out naturally from her straw hat as she looks up from a book.
Portraiture also communicated Enlightenment values to a wider audience through a vastly expanded print industry. Viewers of all classes could identify with portraits as role models and follow their example of the good Enlightenment life. Such Enlightenment poster boys included Isaac Newton, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the American statesman and scientist, Benjamin Franklin, whose rise from poverty was inspirational to many. They heralded the rise of a new sort of celebrity, and thus an opportunity for self-fashioning of a new kind.
It is therefore not surprising that Enlightenment portraits concentrated increasingly on the individuality of the person portrayed. Whereas the portraits of Reynolds, Gainsborough, and even Hogarth, often included backgrounds of the sitter’s home, estate or heroic status, as well as rich depictions of clothes and drapery, by the end of the century these settings began to disappear, especially in France. By contrast, neoclassicism, the prevalent artistic doctrine of this period, preached austerity. Sitters often appear without the support of drapery and property, and are instead set against a flat, dark background. The emphasis is on the unique, singular being. This shift in portraiture mirrored the enormous political and ideological changes of the French Revolution. As people became capable – as never before – of voting and governing their own lives, so they were increasingly portrayed as individuals.
This change is reflected in Jacques-Louis David’s picture of the death of the revolutionary political hero Jean-Paul Marat, a left-wing demagogue, who was murdered in his bath by the young royalist Charlotte Corday. David places Marat against a dark background, focusing on the man’s individuality, as well as his martyrdom. He does this by emphasising the unusual setting of the bath, famously the site of Marat’s murder and a key element of his identity, since he wrote his revolutionary tracts in the bath to relieve the pain of his terrible eczema.
Yet Marat’s pose also recalls portrayals of Jesus in the arms of Mary after his Descent from the Cross, imagery that transformed this citizen into a secular saint. Because of its allegiance both to tenets of neoclassicism and to the extreme politics of the time, David’s picture became widely known in Paris and attracted huge crowds. This was not simply because of Marat’s own fame as a spokesman for the ordinary man, but also because of the dramatic impact of the painting.
David’s picture seems modern in contrast to that of Louis XVI, which was painted by Antoine-François Callet only fifteen years earlier. Here, the formal emblems show another, much older, approach to the question of how to express power through portraiture. They signify the era before the French Revolution’s calls for equality and its interest in the individual qualities of the sitter. The pose of Louis dominates the picture; his leg bisects the painting, and its firmness implies royal strength and power. But his portrait also seems overwhelmed by drapery, furs and noble orders and fixes him in the traditional pose of French rulers – the office was greater than the man.
David’s portrait of Napoleon presents a man who is greater than the office. In spite of his position as Emperor by the time of this portrait, he is depicted without the cascades of rich fabrics and furs that mark the portrait of Louis XVI. Whereas Louis is portrayed with the symbols of monarchical authority, Napoleon is painted with the symbols of the real work of a ruler: the candle burns low, the clock points into the small hours, and the workaholic Napoleon stands in uniform beside a desk covered with papers, suggesting both his military and civil duties. The crucible of the French Revolution, which saw both the execution of Louis XVI and the establishment of a Republic in France, had dramatically altered the depiction of power at the same time as it had transformed its substance.
Other depictions of royal personality are far more personal and modern, notably one of Europe’s other self-made monarch, Catherine the Great. Under the rule of the German-born empress, Russia fought several successful wars, increased its territories by half, enacted a new legal code, and gathered the first accurate information about her dominions in Siberia through to the Pacific Ocean. Yet Catherine played the role of an enlightened monarch and was the patron of major thinkers of the day, such as Denis Diderot. Her smiling image (above) shows her as a new kind of ruler – one who is carefree enough to manage her role without losing her femininity or sense of humour. Given that she had ruthlessly usurped power from her husband, such an image was a considerable propaganda coup.
Enlightenment portraiture, however, did not only depict the powerful. Great changes took place in the portrayal of women. For the first time in secular painting, they were portrayed as adoring mothers, even at the highest levels of society. Sir Joshua Reynold’s portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire playing with her baby is a case in point. The Enlightenment devoted great energies to the transformation of the family: in particular, it promoted the vital role of the mother. Where the father appeared, he played a new role as educator and protector.
Key to this transformation were the works of the French thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his followers. Rousseau’s book Emile (1762) was a concerted attack on the triviality of contemporary education, particularly in regard to girls, and on the artificiality of the family life of his day. Rousseau argued that the relationship between mother and child had to be ‘natural’ – a key concept of Enlightenment thinking that was often equated with good, and implied a closeness to physical creation, and the unfettered human body.
For Rousseau, the bond between mother and child was symbolised most powerfully by breast-feeding. This suggestion was radical in an age when babies, even in the lower classes, were routinely separated from their mothers at birth and sent to (often rural) wet-nurses. Rousseau decried such a practice as breaking the natural bond between mother and child, thus weakening the family structure. Enough people, particularly in the upper classes, caught on to Rousseau’s ideas to effect great change in the portrayal of women as mothers. As a result, such pictures emphasise the natural bonds of motherhood rather than the status of the sitters.
Goya’s portrait is also typical of this new spirit in painting. He shows this young scion of a grand aristocratic family as a child rather than a mini-adult (as Velázquez had depicted the royal children in the seventeenth century). The puzzling symbolism of the animals may also allude to his ability to determine his path in life: the birds and the cats suggest liberty and cunning, the lead and the cage servitude. This young person does not simply inherit his place in the world, but, as the painting suggests, he can choose how to live his life.
The 1832 portrait of the publisher M. Louis-François Bertin, by David’s pupil Ingres, reflects a very different time and situation. The founder of the newspaper, Le Journal des Débats, Bertin came to prominence under the ‘bourgeois monarchy’ of King Louis-Philippe (reigned 1830–48), a distant relation of Napoleon, which saw the development of capitalism, banks and railways. People like the self-made Bertin were central to these changes and Ingres shows him as a model of the rising French bourgeoisie. The ultimate modern man, his direct gaze, hunched pose, tense, claw-like hands and tousled hair suggest that he has just sat down for a moment and is impatient to return to work.
The RA’s ‘Citizens and Kings’ exhibition mirrors both the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and its impact on the nineteenth, when the Enlightenment came to be seen (wrongly, for the most part) as repudiating religion and thus providing no firm basis for morality. An increasing emphasis on the person rather than the appearances of power went hand in hand with increasing middle-class representation in the art of portraiture. This in turn mirrored the events of a tumultuous historical period, when the world truly ‘turned upside down’.
Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760—1830
Main Galleries, Royal Academy of Arts, London (020 7300 8000), 3 February–20 April
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