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Portraits and lies

5 August 2014

MoroniNews of the Royal Academy’s impending Moroni exhibition, with its gushing publicity (and the somewhat more sober assessment of his reputation in Art History News) reminds me of a curious short story by Henry James, a writer whose immense reputation is every bit deserved, and (not at all the same) who is also a personal favourite.

In “The Liar” (included in the collection A London Life and other tales, but originally published in 1888) the plot depends on the idea that a portraitist can produce a portrait of an inveterate liar which will, without further explanation, convey this failing to viewers. By way of general background in the story, Moroni’s Tailor (the first of the National Gallery’s eleven Moronis, acquired in 1862) is held up as a model of incisive portraiture, but not even this fine work provides any such insight into the inner life of the sitter. A portraitist can do happy or sad; a good one might stretch to affable, supercilious, complacent even: but not mendacious, which of course is less a physiognomic state than a moral condition, requiring different arts than those of painting for its exposure.

Rousseau (who better to ask about lying?) drew the epigraph for his Confessions from Perseus’s Satires: the untranslatable “ego te intus et in cute novi”. Webster may famously have seen the skull beneath the skin, but one of his characters (no doubt aware of another recent play) observed more crudely that

There’s no more credit to be given to th’ face,
Than to a sick man’s urine.

Portraiture has, since its origins thousands of years ago, striven for accurate representation – likeness or resemblance. But theoreticians like Roger de Piles set out a more ambitious prospectus, that of exploring character: “la fin des Portraits…consiste à exprimer le veritable temperament des personnes que l’on represente, & à faire voir leur Phisionomie” (1668, in his notes to du Fresnoy). Jonathan Richardson said much the same in his Essay on the theory of painting (1725 ed., pp. 21f):

’Tis not enough to make a Tame, Insipid resemblance of the Features, so that every body shall know who the Picture was intended for, nor even to make the Picture what is often said to be prodigious Like: (This is often done by the lowest of Face-Painters, but then ’tis ever with the Art of a Fool, and an Unbred Person;) A Portrait-Painter must understand Mankind, and enter into their Characters, and express their Minds as well as their Faces: And as his Business is chiefly with People of Condition, he must Think as a Gentleman, and a Man of Sense, or ’twill be impossible to give Such their True, and Proper Resemblances.

It is surely no coincidence that the last wave of enthusiasm for portraiture, in which the National Gallery acquired its Moronis, occurred just as the photograph was gaining prominence: and while no one seriously suggests that that development dispensed with the need for portrait painting, it certainly created a need for a somewhat deeper analysis of just where its value lay. As James’s story indicates, claims that portraiture analyses character have to be carefully circumscribed. I’ve touched on this before, in another post whose arguments I won’t repeat. But Poussin had a rather sounder idea when he said (writing in 1665, only a few years before de Piles) that “La fin de l’art est la délectation.”


From → Art history

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