The Fiction of the Pose and the Functions of Portraiture….

The Fiction of the Pose and the Functions of Portraiture….


  1. The viewer must become an armchair archaeologist in viewing portraits.  How does this article define that role?
  2. Do you believe that the image is the result of collaboration between the artist and the subject?
  3. What are the possible pitfalls of this definition of a portrait?
  4. Do you agree with Barthes or the author regarding the ‘mortiferous’ aspects of a portrait?
  5. Do all portraits bear the imprint of the scopic encounter?  How does this view upset the taxonomy proposed by Martin in the last article we read?
  6. What are some of the functions of portraiture that we have considered thus far?  How many of them embody a thin veneer of virtue that was meant to inspire imitation by the beholder?
  7. Castiglione and the art of the Courtier keep cropping up in our discussion.  The ability to convey an air of sprezzatura (effortless grace or naturalness) and the ability to fake it, as it were, were essential for the Renaissance man.  How does “posing” alter our discussion of portraiture?
  8.   Does Berger’s “fiction of the pose” work when he turns to Dutch portraiture/genre painting?
  9. What are the ramifications of Berger’s ideas for the beholder?  For the subject?  For the artist?
  10. What about the effect of the fiction of the pose on gender?  Do you find his ideas convincing?
  11.  Can you discern any national proclivities in the functions of portraiture?
  12.  What types of portraits were suitable as gifts?  When did an image serve as a proxy?  Why has portraiture always been such a powerful political instrument?

8 responses

  1. 1. The viewer is urged to become an “armchair archaeologist” in viewing portraits for a number of reasons that Harry Berger, Jr. outlines in his article “Fictions of the Pose: Facing the Gaze of Early Modern Portraiture”. Similarly to an archaeologist approaching the study of a culture through artifacts, the art historian should go about analyzing the portrait without inferring too much about the sitter’s character. In Berger’s article his primary point is to provide a different approach to “unpacking” portraiture. He believes it is necessary to shift the “…style and performance of the painter to the style and performance of the sitter as sitter” (94). It is difficult to abandon one’s prior knowledge of a painting and project that onto the sitter. Berger discusses some of this when he states, “Art historians dispense judgements of this sort pretty openhandedly, but they also exercise commendable prudence in their refusal to elaborate, or share with us, the inside knowledge that enables them to read the face as an index of the mind” (91). The importance of detaching the painter, sitter, and art historians personal interpretations allow for one to view a portrait without bias.

  2. Grace, thank you for your thoughtful deconstruction of Berger’s approach. I was particularly struck by your last sentence and wonder if you believe that it is possible to view a portrait without bias? Is bias, in other words, a bad thing? In my research I have been reading anthropologists who study the archaeology of emotion (I had no idea that there was such a field….). These scholars suggest that emotions are located outside of the individual in the natural world—-that human beings mirror these emotions from art or other fixed objects. Another fact that seems germane to this course (and rather stunning—-) is that SPOT (Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques) used by US airports observe faces to identify microvariations in expression that reveal emotions and thus detect individuals who threaten air security (these expressions are supposedly universal)—yikes! “Emotionally universal pasts underpin the success of costume dramas, historical fiction, and even television documentaries, which use emotions of love, grief, anger, and fear as bridges between modern audiences and past people.” (Sarah Tarlow, “The Archaeology of Emotion and Affect,” Annual Review of Anthropology 41 (2012), 171). I kept thinking of these studies while rereading the “Fictions of the Pose” and drawing some wacky conclusions. I am eager for our discussion tomorrow!

  3. Question 2 asks, “Do you believe that the image is the result of collaboration between the artist and the subject?” On page 99, Berger states that a portrait represents a “three-way transaction between painter, sitter and observer in a purely fictional field.” As I interpreted the article this is the basis of the fiction of the pose. I believe the execution and planning of an image is the result of the artist and sitter’s collaboration; however I think the third-party, the observer, is key in this equation. It is not uncommon for two observers to read an image very differently. We have seen this during our class discussion. The observer’s state of mind, position in society, past experiences and education (and more) can all make a difference in how an image is interpreted. One viewer may see a portrait and see the sitter as elite and educated, another may think the sitter is condescending or snobbish. For this reason, I think the observer’s reactions and impressions are quite valuable to the meaning of a portrait.

    My questions:

    Is there consensus on how a 3/4 view portrait is interpreted versus a full-frontal/direct gaze (is this the right terminology) portrait? In other words, does a 3/4 view give the illusion of holding something back versus a full-frontal which might imply full-disclosure?

    On page 94 the writer says that we see a picture of Paul III as a Titian and a Jan Six as a Rembrandt (as opposed to seeing the sitter). Was this true at the time of the painting? Or was the sitter equally or more important than the portraitist at the time of the painting?

  4. Excellent questions, Beth. And your comments of course go right to the heart of the matter—-where is identity situated? My recent research has made me realize how culturally and socially constructed much of identity is—but the contract between painter and sitter and observer seems to overshadow those foundational questions. All of this to say—-that I agree that the observer has the “last word” as it were but that it is reductive to say that art is in the eye of the beholder, etc. I would love to discuss this issue, your questions about 3/4 versus frontal portraits, and the two portraits you invoke in class.

  5. This just in from Kathryn Pelli:

    4. Yes, I agree there is something mortiferous about portraiture. There is a definitiveness to portraiture that arises from its singular representation of a sitter who is, undoubtedly, far more complex than an iconographic image might suggest. The attire, facial expression, and gestures of the sitter can only tell the viewer so much. Due to this inability to convey more than a limited number of interpretations, the representation of the sitter is dead since no further conclusions about his or her character can be drawn from the image alone.

  6. 2. Do you believe that the image is the result of collaboration between the artist and the subject?
    I am in the Visual Culture class this semester, and we have been spending a great deal of time talking about what images mean and how we experience them in our world today. I agree with Beth’s comment on question 2: Berger’s Fiction of the Pose discusses on page 99 how the relationships in the painting extend out to the modern observer of a portrait. “Thus it (the portrait) represents the three-way diachronic transaction between painter, sitter, and observer in a purely fictional field. This is the basic plot, scenario, or fiction of Early Modern portraiture, and I call it the fiction of the pose. Its claim is that the sitter and painter were present to each other during the act of painting; that the sitter did in the studio (or wherever) what she or he appears to be doing in the portrait; and that in posing before the painter he or she was projecting the self- representation aimed at future observers.” The artist and subject have the most prevalent connection during the process of creating the portrait, but the purpose behind having a portrait commissioned and painting a portrait is locked in the idea that the portrait will be seen by a multitude of people for an indeterminate amount of time in the future. The artist’s personal experiences and relationship with the sitter will affect the portrait, like Diego Velazquez’s highly personal look at the royal family in “Las Meninas.”
    Portraiture, like all other artwork, was created to be viewed, so the viewer will place their own connotations on a piece of artwork when they view it that is built on their own personal knowledge and experiences. Not all artists will necessarily think explicitly about these ideas or even care, but they are an implicit aspect of how art is experienced and why it is so prevalent in the world. There is something interesting about humanity wanting to be catalogued and presented to the world in a specific way that comes through in this three-way relationship between artist, sitter, and audience. All three are necessary for that want to be seen to be fulfilled.

  7. Stokes I am very interested in the perspective that you bring from your Visual Culture class and hope that you will say more about that in class. I think we are in agreement about this three way contract between artist-sitter-observer. I have just read another article on the fiction of the pose that contrasts the ideas of Freeland and Spinicci—-and one of the questions they debate is whether there can be portraits of animals—-as I’ve known many a dog conscious of posing for a portrait. What is the verdict on that? Or does the portrait have to be rendered in the flesh to capture the spirit of the sitter, etc.?!!

  8. 10. What about the effect of the fiction of the pose on gender? Do you find his ideas convincing?

    For many of the examples that Berger used in the article, there seemed to have been a difference in definition between male and females. An example is of posing: is a work of art a portrait if it is not making eye contact with the observer? In the examples that Berger has given, it makes it seems as if a woman sitter is doing an activity and not staring directly at us it is not a portrait. However, a male portrait of a man who is clearly posing is a portraiture because he is not fully engaged in another activity.

    My question:
    Does the sitter have to have a relationship with the observer?

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