Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

National Portrait Gallery: My two pence

September 3, 2010 · 2 Comments

Personally, I had been looking forward to going to the NPG ever since we got here- some of my favourite images, absolutely iconic to my field of study are housed here. And I was not disappointed.

People have been going on and on about how the Gallery only had portraits of white, rich men but, strictly speaking, that’s not true. The number of female portraits rivalled, if not exceeded the portraits of the men, certainly not during every era, but overall. As for the other considerations, think about the cost, time and hassle it would have been to get your portrait painted- from the Tudor era to Victorian times (at least) portraits could only be afforded by the wealthy or the important, generally meaning royalty or aristocracy. As we got further on in time, there were more portraits of professionals: important scientists, artists, poets, even some Shakespearean actors! However, these people all had powerful (read: rich) friends or connections and I think a more accurate characteristic of the majority of sitters was celebrity rather than wealth. As has been previously mentioned, there was more diversity in the contemporary (1960s-present) sections of the Gallery but this may not satisfy everyone as many of these were not wholly portraits per se but photographs, sculpture, etc. The sad fact is, now that more people could actually afford painted portraits, the medium is a dying breed. Photography has taken over.

I was having an incredibly difficult time choosing one portrait, as so many of my favourites live in the NPG (indeed, my all time favourite artist Franz Xavier Winterhalter had a few for me to drool over). However, I finally settled on “The Brontë Sisters” painted by Patrick Branwell Brontë (their brother) around 1834. Here is the image’s page from the National Portrait Gallery website:


and the image itself:

This is an image that I- as an English major specialising in 19th Century British Literature and a devoted admirer of Jane Eyre, my all-time favourite book- have seen countless times, but there was something completely magical about seeing it in the flesh, as it were. There are many reasons that I love this portrait: it includes Charlotte (who I practically worship), the oft-neglected Anne (whose books I really enjoy and think should be read more), and the bane of my existence Emily (I think Wuthering Heights is probably the worst love story of all time) and shows them in what was really their natural setting: their home. The siblings were very close (several other children had died before their teen years) and I think it’s very significant that the portrait was painted by the only brother, Branwell. Branwell was a very tragic figure: he drank himself to death in 1848, squabbled away his money and talent (both as an artist and a poet) and left his sisters alone to care for their ageing father. I had not really noticed the details of the portrait before: that “pillar” in the middle, which my eyes had frequently just glossed over, appears to actually be a painted-over self-portrait of Branwell. Whether he had just changed his mind about including himself in with his sisters or was simply unhappy with the result is unknown, but there is an eerie symbolism to the ghostly silhouette that remains amidst the figures of the sisters.

Two months after Branwell’s death, Emily sickened (likely with a fever resulting from a neglected cold) and died very quickly. Anne developed consumption not long after and died within six months of her sister. This left Charlotte the only surviving Bronte sibling until her own death about six years later. It is hard to view the siblings together, apparently happy- approximately 14 years before their tragedies began-and forget this sad fact.

Categories: 2010 Elizabeth

2 responses so far ↓

  •   stepheniem // Sep 4th 2010 at 20:28

    I find it interesting that you single out non-traditional portraits, in the sense of anything not painted, and almost mourn their increase in popularity, albeit somewhat at the expense of painted portraits. Throughout history statues have played an almost equally important role in determining a person’s status as a traditional painted portrait. They competed with and complemented their contemporary painted portraits. In fact, it is thanks to these statues that we have likenesses of some rulers at all! With the advent of photography, the access to a portrait of someone has expanded. Instead of stuffier formal portraits, we now have a greater possibility for non-traditional portraits which have the power to reveal a person in a single moment, free from the confines of a studio space. Instead of calling this a “sad fact,” viewers and museums alike should embrace this change as another phase in art history. It is this type of change which has the potential of breaking down “elitist” barriers in art, something that all museums, not just the NPG, have to deal with.

  •   Elizabeth Barr // Sep 6th 2010 at 09:00

    I don’t think my preference for painted portraits is an “elitist barrier”- it is simply the mode of the age in which I have the most artistic interest. Just as the Greeks and Romans predominiantly worked in statue (particularly for their rulers), the 16th-19th centuries were very portrait-dominant. The decreased production of these art works is, to me, a “sad fact” because I don’t see the same degree of beauty in a photograph.

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