Portraiture in History

When reading the History of Russia textbook, something caught my eye. In chapter fifteen, which discusses the history of Ivan the Terrible, there was an image on page 136. It was a portrait of Ivan the Terrible, and the caption is what specifically caught my attention. It simply stated “Ivan IV in a psychological portrait by Victor Vasnetsov, 1897”. I had no idea what a psychological portrait was, but after further research found that it was a portrait that depicted the inner man. That was extremely interesting to me.

Closer observation reveals that the Ivan depicted in this portrait was standing on a staircase, his posture quite regal, and his facial expression imposing, if not blatantly intimidating. His eyes have bags under them, and his beard is unkempt, showing strands of white. His clothing appears very ornate, and he is holding what appears to be a string of beads (maybe something like a rosary? I’m not sure if that is used in Russian Orthodoxy), along with a spear pointed downward that has very fine engraving etched into the handle. Everything about this portrait emphasizes the simultaneously regal, yet threatening nature of Ivan IV.

This portrait reminds me of work that I did in my Historical Methodology class last semester. Our class looked at a series of portraits of Benjamin Franklin, and noted how even the most seemingly minute details in fact conveyed a lot of information. We discussed the role of portraiture in the study of history, and how historians can learn a lot about the subjects depicted. After reading the chapter on Ivan the IV a lot of the details in the portrait make sense. As mentioned before, the eyes and unkempt beard were maybe purposefully done, with both of these perhaps indicating his exhaustion, and the psychological battles tormenting his mind. I am particularly interested by the spear facing downward however. Is it even a spear? And why would it be facing downward? In addition, why would Ivan the Terrible be holding what appears to be a rosary?

My theory is that the artist Victor Vasnetsov was subtlety conveying his own opinion about his subject. Perhaps this is more a sympathetic portrait of Ivan IV. The downward facing spear may have been depicted as such to show Ivan as not threatening or aggressive even. That, combined with the rosary type object (which could indicate Ivan’s religious beliefs) may have been used to make Ivan the Terrible, who has always been seen as a ruthless tyrant, more human. Looking more closely at his facial expression, the artist truly conveys not only the exhaustion, but also maybe sadness, grief for his wife’s death, and for what he believes is a betrayal by his most trusted advisors.

There is of course the obvious question of the validity of my claims. With portraiture, there is a very blurred line between what information can be derived from an image, and was constitutes as being too far of an inference to make. It is impossible to know if this portrait accurately paints the inner man of Ivan IV. After all, it was painted centuries after this infamous tsar lived. It is an interesting question to ponder though, how much reliance can be placed on the study of portraits in history?


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