Portraiture—“Showing Both the Face AND the Mind”

Horace, the 1st century BC Roman lyric poet, made the following remark in his Epistles, II,i:  Suspendit picta vultum mentemque tabella (translated from the Latin to English = “In painting he shows both the face and the mind”

What are your expectations when you confront portraiture in painting or sculpture?  What mark or marks must the artist hit to reach your demands on success within the realm of portraiture?  Just today, there was a formal reception in Washington, D. C. as the National Portrait Gallery unveiled the portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama.  Kehinde Wiley was the American artist who captured former President Obama’s portrait and Amy Sherald was the American artist who captured former First Lady Michelle Obama’s portrait.  As we begin to look at our colonial painters, especially John Singleton Copley, strive to fix into visible form the images of patrons in their time, the task of confronting the complexities of both the face and the mind are brought to the forefront.  Did Copley, Wiley and Sherald succeed within your value system?

Amy Sherald, Portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama (2018) and Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of President Barack Obama (2018) 

John Singleton Copley, Boy with a Squirrel, 1763

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.


11 thoughts on “Portraiture—“Showing Both the Face AND the Mind””

  1. To me, a portrait’s success depends on the purpose of the portrait itself. Sometimes they’re conceptual, sometimes they’re formal, sometimes they are just for fun. The success of the portrait depends on why it was created. If it was commissioned to resemble the subject exactly, and the finished product doesn’t, then to me the portrait wasn’t successful. If the portrait is more conceptual, and open to interpretation, it could be classified as successful if I feel the essence of the person through other ways – even if the facial features are not the same.

    I was recently thinking about this point. I was initially shocked when Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s portrait was unveiled and her beautiful brown skin was washed in gray. Her normal queen like stature was hidden as she sat covered by folds and folds of a dress. I was disappointed at first. But then, I read a piece by Chris Cilliza and Phillip Kennicott titled, “Michelle Obama’s Official Portrait Looks Nothing Like Her.” Kendicott expressed an opinion that I found quite moving. He said: “[Sherald] doesn’t make the kind of portraits you see hanging in boardrooms or above the fireplace mantle in the homes of the 1%. She focuses on African-Americans and renders them with great psychological intimacy. The colors she uses don’t have that warm, burnished glow you expect from classic portraiture, and the immediacy of her renderings isn’t filtered through the careful staging of power. Her subjects, including the first lady, are exposed, and open, and that in itself is fairly radical within the narrow limits of presidential portraiture.”

    I read that statement and subsequently the rest of the piece, and my view of the portrait changed. Although I was initially disappointed, after reading the background of the artists’ work, and considering the cultural importance of Mrs. Obama being rendered the way she was, I felt that the portrait was successful. Successful portraiture, to me, is dependent on the purpose and context of the piece itself.


  2. I’ve been to some of the few iconic Art Galleries/Museums around the world (The Lourve, Vatican Museum, Galleria dell’ Academia) . Prior to visiting a place that has history, art, or anything that is relevant, I tend to do research beforehand. I always love to see an actual piece of art in person. Seeing the the rich history in the Vatican Museum, even seeing the Statue of David in its entirety is awe inspiring. Seeing the Mona Lisa in person was amazing, the crowd however was not. I don’t really set expectations for a piece of art, but rather gather up loads of excitement to see it in person, plus travel is always a bonus.


  3. When I look at a portraiture in painting/sculpture, I’m expected to be told a story or at least something about the subject. Here in, Copley’s “A Boy with a Flying Squirrel”, he does just that. 

My gaze immediately goes first to the boy’s face framed by that wonderful red curtain. The boy strikes me as being aloof, as he does not make direct eye contact with Copley. When I’m done there, my eyes run down to his hand to admire the precision with which those fingertips are rendered – Just look at how effortlessly they hold that gold chain! The boy is cautious and careful as to not spook the squirrel that sits idly by. It is obvious that Copley observed his subject well with great attention to detail. The same thing can be said for Sherald’s “Portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama” and Wiley’s “Portrait of President Barack Obama”, where we see both subjects in a context that tells us a bit about who they are.


  4. What makes a successful portrait is not just a likeness to the subject in features, but also the ability to render the personality, the “soul,” the “essence” of the person. The portrait of Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald captures the
    former First Lady’s regal-ness, but also her personability. She was a First Lady that was truly of the people. Amy Sherald’s style of painting in grey is also a deliberate call-back to the American photographic tradition, particularly in regards to African-Americans. They were only ever represented as property, photographic documentation of ownership, until technology allowed cameras to be widely used and purchased, and therefore African-Americans were able to dictate and create their own photographic narrative in family albums. Sherald’s paintings of sitters in grisé is a reference to this “taking back” of a narrative. Kehinde Wiley also has a long practice of painting black Americans against vibrant, luscious backgrounds in order to elevate their status (or conversely, to show that they are as much royalty as anyone). Both Wiley and Sherald truly captured the importance of this moment in history, when America elected an African American family to the white house. Not only did they capture the Obamas, but they also captured what they represented, a the whole history of black struggles in this country.
    Copley’s portrait of his half-brother shows a different sensibility. It is an interesting portrait since it shows the boy only in profile, and it is not as “serious” as the Obama portrait. The boy is playing absent-mindedly with the squirrel, and not paying attention to the viewer. However, this portrait is successful in a different way than the Obama portraits, this one is successful at showing an intimate, personal view of someone.


  5. To make a successful portrait the artist must capture the subjects likeness in one way or another, otherwise what is the point of a portrait? There are other factors that then make the portrait interesting or unique, composition, pose, background, props, clothing, lighting, color, etc. To me, personally a portrait must capture the subjects likeness, (it must look like the person in some way), and it has to be somewhat interesting for it to be successful. In my opinion all three portraits are successful to me although Copley’s is my favorite. His is my favorite because it is really weird and deviates from the standard portrait you normally see, yet it is still capturing the subjects likeness and shows his skill for painting. I appreciate both Obama portraits because both artists are true to their own styles and wanted their portraits to stand out among the other presidential portraits. They both appear strong yet kind and have colorful and interesting patterns.


  6. When it comes to portraits, we all look for connectivity. What connects us to the person in the portrait? What makes that person, place, or thing relate able? A portrait doesn’t necessarily have to be a person, it can generally be anything that details or focuses on a particular space within the image. People are just a lot easier to identify in a portrait, especially if they are the central figure. It is all about capturing the likeliness of whatever the main subject is. The paintings displayed in the post definitely succeed in capturing or painting in the likeliness of the main subject. There is a clear definition of what we are suppose to be looking at, in its prime form.


  7. Throughout history, humans have always had a fascination with faces. I believe this is because we build a connection with that person’s when we are face-to-face with them. When I look at a portrait, I want to see more than just a painting of a person’s face; I want to understand who they were as a person. Portraits can be intimate pieces of art. When a skilled portrait artist paints their sitter, they not only depict their likeness but their passion, heart, and mind. After looking at Copley’s American paintings, I feel that he succeeded my expectations for successful portraiture.


  8. In terms of my expectations when I confront portraiture, I think that it should be very expressive. Whether it is abstract or hyper-realistic I need to be able to connect with the figure. It makes more sense that the more realistic an artwork is the more I should be able to relate to it but that’s not necessarily true. As long as the face is gripping and has a story behind it, I will like it.
    I think that Copley succeeded in some aspects, but WIley and Sherald aced it. While Copley’s painting is very beautifully done, it follows the same routine as classical portraiture. There are random objects that show pieces of his interests and social status. Those aspects don’t tell me much about the boy. And because it’s so scripted, I have no interest in trying to get to know him.
    With Wiley’s and Sherald’s artworks, they are new and exciting and very gripping. The Obamas are individualized and unique. They have background stories that are deep wells one can spend forever contemplating.


  9. To truly and successfully create a portraiture one most obviously capture the unique physical characteristics the subject. Things that only tell us what that person looked liked but also what was so unique about them. For example portraits of Lincoln his height is always a big components in it, because although he had physical features that distinct him as such, we always regard those unique features that not only tell us what he looked like, but also tell us a little bit about him. That is also a huge part of portrait making, the idea that we not only capture the person and what he or she looked liked, but what he or she was like. This necessarily doesn’t mean changing any physical characteristics to this person’s likeness but highlighting the things that make him or she unique. Copley used props, like “boy with squirrel”. This can also be done with the non verbal body language of the subject, Michelle and Barack both hold very approachable yet confident poses that tell the viewer not only what they look like but perhaps what they are like. Copley also did this successfully, he would capture the essence of the person, the aura and what they were like. Perhaps they were shy and looked away or they were defiant and engaged the viewer with a deep stare and emotionless face.


  10. When I encounter a portrait or sculpture, there are a few things I look for. First off, and most obviously, is that the portrait looks like, or has resemblance to the subject. I’m sure there are tons of abstract portraits, but the ones that I am interested in are the ones where I can actually tell who the subject it. On top of this, the objects in the portraits environment should relate to who the individual is on the inside. In the two Obama portraits, you can tell by their poses that they are both strong, charismatic people. On top of this, their surroundings tell you about the passion that they have inside.

    Copley, WIley, and Sherald succeeded in this as well. They included things besides just the main figure that tell you a little bit more about the people in the painting. In the Boy with a Squirrel painting, everything from the tied up squirrel to the fact that he’s in profile are used to convey ideas about the boy that go beyond his mere appearance.


  11. When it comes to portraiture in painting/sculpture, I assume that there is a back story behind the overall meaning of it. In Copley’s “A Boy with a Flying Squirrel”, it shows just that. As viewing it, off the bat I view the face of the boy that is framed by the red curtain. As the boys face shows an expression that is unsympathetic since he doesn’t really make any eye contact. My eyes also directed to the detailing of his hands since the detail looks so in tune when hold that gold chain. As the boy looks like he is taking precautions to not frighten the squirrel that is sitting by it is basically viewed where Copley observes the subjects in good details.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s