Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Portraits: Old and New

September 3, 2010 · 2 Comments

Before visiting the National Portrait Gallery today, I predicted that while much of the museum  would feature only the white rich and famous, the contemporary collection at least would attempt to capture the multi-ethnic character of England.  In that regard I was disappointed.  In terms of subject matter, the museum evolved very little throughout.

As I finished the final gallery, I gradually realized that this particular museum does not portray (and does not intend to portray) the faces of England as a whole.  In fact, The “About Us,” section of the National Portrait Gallery’s website explains that the museum’s goal is to, “promote through the medium of portraits the appreciation and understanding of the men and women who have made and are making British history and culture.”  This does not mean the day to day making of history and culture, accomplished by the people who make up its population.  Its purpose is first and foremost to portray the individuals who have made it into the history book, and unfortunately, that group remains fairly homogeneous.

However, the Portrait Gallery does show change through the years in the art of portraiture.  Throughout most of the museum, any given time period has a corresponding style.  Clues are in the crafting of every detail, down to the folds in the fabric of the sitters’ clothing: for example, in any painting in the Tudor section, the fabric tends to look particularly stiff.  Many of these paintings can be easily assigned to a time period, but much less easily to a particular artist.  Since the main goal of portraiture for many years was to portray the sitter in a flattering, distinguished, and fashionable light, creativity was low in priority.


The newest paintings depart from this long tradition of conformity.  One room contains numerous paintings of nearly photographic quality, among a few actual photographs of members of the current royal family.  These look in a sense tradition to an extreme, since they so closely achieve the old goal of capturing exact but flattering likenesses of the subjects.  However, the room around the corner features three Andy Warhol prints of Queen Elizabeth II, in which features are simplified in bright colors.  In these, the queen is a pop culture icon first and foremost.  Some of the recent paintings were so thick with paint or otherwise distorted, that painting style itself was more prominent than the famous individual’s features.

Probably not coincidentally, the contemporary section contained many more self portraits by artists.  With creativity as a main focus of portraiture today, the artists themselves are ready subjects for their own experimentation.

Categories: 2010 Emily · Uncategorized

2 responses so far ↓

  •   stepheniem // Sep 3rd 2010 at 21:17

    You have a point with the museum’s mission, but shouldn’t part of “the men and women who have made and are making British history and culture” be those who are the average British citizen? Surely their contribution to British culture is just as important as the queen’s and others at the topmost echelons of (political, academic, and artistic) society that the museum showcases co well?

  •   emilym // Sep 4th 2010 at 12:10

    Stephanie- I agree. I just meant that the curators probably interpret their mission in a more face value way that only includes those who “make the news”. Maybe they should update and widen their vision.

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