How to read
a portrait

Even so, portraits are so personal and intimate that some people can doubt whether it's an appropriate form of art to hang in your home. Here are a few reasons to show you how this form of art can be really engaging and will mentally always keep you on your toes.

All museum and gallery visitors bring with them the ideal equipment for interpreting portraits which is themselves. Whatever their age or background, they have immense amounts of useful prior knowledge that can be tapped into and that is knowledge, for example, about emotions conveyed through body language and facial expressions or about giving messages through clothing. This includes the experience of having had an image made of themselves, generally a photograph.

A good example is John Singer Sargent (1856 –1925) who was an American artist and considered the "leading portrait painter of his generation" for his evocations of Edwardian era luxury. During his career, he created roughly 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolors, as well as countless sketches and charcoal drawings. Born in Florence of American parents, and trained in Paris prior to moving to London, Sargent enjoyed international acclaim as a portrait painter, although not without controversy and some critical reservation; an early submission to the Paris Salon, his Portrait of Madame X, was intended to consolidate his position as a society painter, but it resulted in scandal instead. Ironically it is now considered one of his best works, and was the artist's personal favorite; he stated in 1915, "I suppose it is the best thing I have done."

From the beginning his work was characterized by remarkable technical facility, particularly in his ability to draw with a brush, which in later years inspired admiration as well as criticism for a supposed superficiality. His commissioned works were consistent with the grand manner of portraiture, while his informal studies and landscape paintings displayed a familiarity with Impressionism. In the early 1880s Sargent regularly exhibited portraits at the Salon, and these were mostly full-length portrayals of women, such as Madame Edouard Pailleron (1880) (done en plein-air) and Madame Ramón Subercaseaux (1881).

Sargent's best portraits reveal the individuality and personality of the sitters; his most ardent admirers think he is matched in this only by Velázquez, who was one of Sargent's great influences.

The strategy of reading portraiture encourages the visual analysis of a piece of art, similar to closely reading a document. The visual clues found in portraiture may be decoded to learn about the individual featured in the artwork. To get started, select visually complex images that include objects and a compelling setting. The pursuit of the 'essence' of the sitter remains as strong as ever today, which is why portraits are now captured in so many styles and subjects.

by Sylvia A.Zajc