Questions to ponder on the Nature of Portraiture!

Questions to Ponder on the Nature of Portraiture…..


  1. What is meant by the “Faciality” of Western culture?  Do you agree with this characterization?  Why or why not?
  2. In what way does a portrait embody or model virtue?  When does this function of portraiture wane?
  3. In what way do portraiture and biography form a double helix?  And aren’t you impressed that I know what a double helix is?!
  4. What effect did the booming business of psychology have on portraiture?
  5. What is the danger of reading a man’s character from his portrait?  Is physiognomy destiny?  When does the skill of the artist tip the balance in the appreciation of portraiture?
  6. The portrait in not only about the body and face, but also about the mind and character of the subject.  Discuss!
  7. What is the duality of likeness and type?
  8. What would Descartes say about all this?  Wherein lies identity?  It’s the old mind-body problem again!
  9. What is caricature and when does it originate?
  10.  What was the  “New Objectivity” project?  What is the impact of photography on the art of portraiture?

Self-Portraiture and Self-Reflection!

Hey everyone, I hope you enjoyed this relatively short article and another fun round of “Where’s Waldo”! I found Brusati’s essay to be quite engaging, alongside the little game of finding the artists inside the portraits. I have to say, it reminded me so much of optical illusions, in the sense that you are searching for figures in the painting that might not be so obvious to find. I don’t want to talk too much about the stuff yet, because I want to save some for our awesome discussion on Thursday. Obviously, I want this to be discussion based, so feel free to comment on my questions or even just vent out your thoughts while reading the article. I can’t wait to discuss the article in class on Thursday!

–       Jess


1.      I wanted to start off by addressing the traditional conventions of portraiture. Brusati states that “instead of appearing in pictures as embodied human subjects according to the usual conventions of portraiture, these still-life painters transform themselves into pictures”. Do you agree with this statement? If so, are they still portraits or a hybrid form of painting  that have portrait-like qualities?

2.      I also wanted to take a moment to reflect on the theoretical interaction between the artist, subject, possible patron, and audience. How do you think subjects would react to the insertion of the artist into the painting alongside the sitter? Do you believe that this was a possible way to not only inflate the ego of the artist, as well as increase the value of the painting for the sitter? 

3.      As we have seen in some of the portraits Brusati has presented, the artists’ depictions of themselves are sometimes more hidden than others. Consider Clara Peeter’s Still Life, and Peter Paul Rubens Four Philosophers. Based on Brusati’s theories, can we make such strong assumptions about the artists’ character based on how they depict themselves in the work, or are we looking to deep into their character, as previous articles have warned against?

4.       Celeste Brusati mentions that one of the concerns with vanitas still-life imagery is the focus on “morality and the fragility of human life – its pleasures, passions, possessions, and ambitions”. I wanted to open up a discussion about Brusati’s statement. Could you not say that portraits in general can potentially be seen in a negative light, by displaying ones’ vanity for all others to see?

5.      Ok so let’s talk about Samuel van Hoogstraeten. Brusati states that “the artist disappears into the artistry, with his pictorial counterfeit of the brush, mirror, comb, and other implements he used to fashion his appearance”. This reminded me very much of Arcimboldo’s Fire, based on the concept of the items make the man, literally. However in Hoogstraeten’s work the items do not create a physical likeness in the literal sense. Are these 2 works still portraits are they only portraits figuratively?

Musings on the Readings in S. West….

Musings about the Readings in S. West on the different roles Portraiture fulfills….

1. In what ways can a portrait affirm or challenge social hierarchies? Think of specific examples of portraits that demonstrate these divergent phenomena.
2. What is the underlying message of most royal portraits?
3. How is the burgeoning Middle Class depicted in portraiture? Why do you think that portraits of powerful people had “affinities with the moral, elevated qualities of history paintings,” and those of the middle classes were allied to scenes of everyday life?
4. What in your opinion accounts for the status of portraiture in the history of art?
5. How was the genius viewed in society? How was he depicted in art?
6. What does the advent of photography do for the celebrity?
7. How is the “other” depicted in portraiture? Remember Egypt?
8. How does group portraiture change the social equation? What are the ways in which group identity was conceived and conveyed?
9. What types of group portraits are there?
10. What are some of the issues that underlie the portrayal of families in portraits? How does the family portrait paradigm shift over time?
11. Civic groups such as guilds, militia, confraternities, and charities often commissioned portraits that expressed their collective identity. Though sharing an ideological bond, the individuals in these groups betray the complex personal, public, and psychological dimensions of say, a family. How did painters come to terms with such a demanding commission?
12. Why is Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” such a visual coup?
13. What are the special demands posed by portraits of artists’ groups? Is it possible for a group portrait to express an ideal as compellingly as an individual portrait may?

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?

Mme de Pompadour as Patron of the Arts…

Natalie will be our guide on this, but here are just a few musings….Why did Donald Posner choose to study this subject?  How could Mme. de  Pompadour be both the champion of the Rococo and the new Neoclassical style?  If the author’s goal is to reassess the patron’s non-impact on the art scene, has he proceeded in a logical way?  How would you have approached this problem?  When Louis XV and Mme. de Pompadour became friends “without benefits” as it were, did art supplant the role of sex?  What was Mme. de Pompadour’s relationship to Tournehem? to Marigny?  Did Mme. de Pompadour have “an aesthetic” of her own?  If so,  where is it manifest?  Why is architecture so favored by the king?  Why does Mme. de Pompadour support the Ecole Militaire project?  The porcelain, the porcelain!  At last, do we see a hint of influence of Mme. de Pompadour? In considering the sculptures that Mme. de P. favored, what do you think of her taste?  Does she reside strongly in the Rococo camp?  Why do you think she favored Boucher’s portrait of her?  Finally, discuss the aspect of Mme. de Pompadour that was revealed by her avid interest and ability in gem cutting.

Divided Memory and Post-Traditional Identity?

Divided Memory and Post-Traditional Identity?

This article is a bit hard going in parts. Here are some thoughts—-though Mia is our guru!

1. What are the influences on Richter’s work following the war? What does the author mean when he refers to the “larger process of personal anamnesis?”
2. Do you agree with Buchloh’s analysis of “Uncle Rudi?” Are these categories of art obsolete?
3. Do all portrait busts have the aura of the hero/leader or only those emanating from a totalitarian arena?
4. Does photography issue the death knell to the portrait?
5. In what ways does Richter’s Self-Portrait “re-position” the artist? How does he become the new historian, as it were?
6. Does the author’s contextualization of Richter’s 48 Portraits explain/justify his exclusions in that assembly? Calling Dr. Freud?
7. Discuss Richter’s “48 Portraits” in relation to Warhol’s “13 Most Wanted Men.”
8. Do you agree with Buchloh’s concluding statement, that the puppet-like, mechanical repetition of the figures ultimately dismantles the pantheon’s credibility?

Questions to Ponder regarding Bronzino’s Methods of Engagement in his Portraiture:

1. What is the paragone debate? When did it begin and when was its heyday?
2. What are the characteristics of Cosimo I de’Medici as Orpheus that make it such a distinctive portrait?
3. How does Bronzino achieve “rilievo” in this painting?
4. Do you subscribe to the author’s interpretation of the wall-eyed gaze in this work? If we concede that it was a desirable trait in the cinquecento (because it was a sign of uniqueness?), is it employed in this portrait to subvert the viewer’s gaze?
5. Does Bronzino employ the double gaze in other portraits? Why is it particularly “fitting” in the portrait of Cosimo I as Orpheus?
6. What other devices could painting employ to “defeat” sculpture in the paragone contest?
7. Does the double gaze trump the science of perspective in Bronzino’s portraits?
8. Where do you stand in the paragone debate? Discuss!

Women in Frames

1. This article reinforces many of the themes that we have discussed so far in this course, particularly the lack of neutrality of the gaze. Through what methodological lenses does Simons view the issue of gender in profile portraits created in the Renaissance?
2. The portraits in this article are seen in the context of the display culture of Quattrocento Florence. Discuss.
3. In the discussion of woman as an object of exchange, her appearance was carefully calculated to foster her transfer at the time of marriage; I found the comparison of the profile portrait to a still life positively chilling because it was so apt!
4. Wives and nuns, the only two Quattrocento options for women, both defined women in relationship to a male. How do these portraits perpetuate this system or contradict it?
5. What led to the eventual demise of the profile portrait?
6. On p. 15 Simons states: “Visual art…both shared and shaped social language and need not be seen as a passive reflection of pre-determining reality. For the representation of women, the profile form, and its particulars were well suited to the construction, rather than reflection, of an invisible ‘reality’.” In what other art historical cases has this been demonstrated?
7. It strikes me as ironic that the origins of the profile portrait are traced to dead men and male rulers. What has the female appropriation done to the prototype.
8. Are all portraits “anatomizing” in the end?
9. There is so much in this article to discuss!!! The optic fear of the woman’s gaze, the Medusa syndrome, the forced passivity of these portraits, and then calling Dr. Freud!
10. Do you see any danger in discussing these portraits in light of scopophilia, castration anxieties, fetishisation, or the proto-panopticon?