Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

The National Portrait Gallery: A Different Perspective?

September 3, 2010 · No Comments

The National Portrait Gallery.  Who’s in it?  Who’s not?  Not to beat a dead horse about the “elitism” that other people have mentioned, but much of what has been said is factually true.  Most of the portraits are of rich white men and women: royalty, statesmen, authors, artists etc.  The cultures of the melting pot that London is today are conspicuously missing.  However, I am not sure that “elitist” is the right word to describe the museum.  I don’t think the museum itself is “elitist.”

First, the National Portrait Gallery is primarily an art museum, and secondarily a history museum.  Much of the text on the signs focused on the artist, the painting techniques, and the treatment of the painting to preserve it.  This type of text was accompanied by a short biography of the subject of the painting.  The museum is not necessarily obligated to present a comprehensive picture of the history of immigration or the changing makeup of London neighborhoods and the other topics we have focused on so far.  I think it falls into an entirely different category from other museums such as the Museum of London and the British Museum.  Even so, I would argue that the NPG does teach us something about British culture and history precisely because of the lack of portraits of non-white lower class people.    We need to remember that lower class British citizens could not afford to have portraits painted of themselves.  Secondly, British citizen regarded their slaves as objects, not people, and regarded the people of the countries they imperialized as distinctly inferior to them.  It would have occurred to no one to depict these people in a portrait, and the people with the money would not have paid for it.  Historians and artists throughout history have only become interested in and recognized the importance these communities only in hindsight.  It is the same story in the US concerning our own slaves and Native Americans.  The National Portrait Gallery shows us this, and is a sort of indirectly and unfortunately accurate depiction of British history and the history of immigrant populations.

It is true that unlike the Docklands Museum and the Museum of London, the National Portrait Gallery is not apologetic about the absence of minorities.  I say “absence” here and not “omission” or a synonym because the lack of diversity in the portraits is more due to a lack of resources than elitism – a word that I feel implies purposefulness.  However, the Docklands Museum and the Museum of London are more diverse museums in general, with pieces like pottery, tools, furniture, clothing, human remains etc… to tell their story, while the NPG’s goal is to portray history and culture specifically through portraiture.

All this being said now, I was most interested in how the NPG demonstrates how painting techniques have changed and developed throughout history and I feel like I learned a lot about this topic I previously knew little about.  As I looked through the Tudor portraits, I began to feel like the faces were rather interchangeable.  The women’s faces were not particularly feminine and the men’s faces were not particularly masculine.  There was little variation in face shape and feature shape, and it seems as though what distinguished one portrait from another was the clothing or the hair.  It was as if there was a generic face template that every Tudor artist knew.  When I got to the set of portraits of Elizabeth I, I found that I was right.  There were certain portrait “formulas” that allowed artists to copy portraits and to create portraits without the live model.  As I moved through the galleries to the Victorian Age and beyond, I began to notice more individuality in the faces, and if there were two portraits and a bust of a certain subject, all three indeed looked like the same person.  I found I was able to recognize certain figures I knew without looking at the signage, including Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.  (Ok so I mixed up Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, but to be fair, they are sisters, and look rather alike.)

I think a particularly interesting painting in the NPG was a portrait of Elizabeth I.  An X-ray of this painting showed that it had been painted on a reused canvas; painted over an unfinished portrait of an unknown woman.  The unknown woman is facing in the opposite direction from Elizabeth and is painted on a completely different position on the canvas.  I think what drew me to this painting was the mysterious aspect of it – almost a second painting that was hidden until revealed by modern technology.

Although I was sort of weirded out by some of the more modern portraits (particularly the silicone and glass skull filled with the artists own blood) I enjoyed my visit today, and feel as though it was both useful and informative.

Categories: 2010 Kaitlin

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