Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

National Portrait Museum Trip

September 3rd, 2010 · 1 Comment

Our trip to the National Portrait Museum was a fantastic experience, giving an eye opening look into famous icons in England dating back all the way to the 17th century. However, that was all it gave, was a look into the faces of rich families and celebrities in England. The museum itself began with elegant portraits of royal British families such as the Tudors and the Stuarts. Fancy galleries seperated by large arched doorways provided the backdrop for all these paintings of wealth. By the time one arrived at the section concerning 19th and 20th century portraits, the portraits of royal family members dropped slightly in numbers and the paintings became a bit more abstract. However, never did they shy away from only portraying the celebrity aspect of all these people. Needless to say, the common man did not receive a portrait. I would have liked to see at least one portrait that portrayed an everyday Londoner, but one can assume that just wouldn’t happen; either because the portrait costs a large amount of money to have done for you, or the artist did not find the common man interesting enough.

Amidst all the glory and wealth illustrated in the earlier portraits in the gallery, one practically leaped off the canvas at me for a different reason.

This portrait, amongst all the glorified, epic depictions of wealth and royalty, shows Paine in a very distorted and dark look, rather than the clean and pristine style of most royal portraits. It is inserted right smack in the middle of the 18th century portraits of Revolutionaries and Royalty. The portrait lacks definition in its lines and Paine’s body almost seems to seep into the background in an odd blend of himself and the darkness around him. In addition, the painting also seems to have a somewhat forboding feeling about it, which differed from nearly every painting surrounding it, where the environment was a large royal hall or a fancy room with the subject seated in a comfy chair. This portrait inserts Paine amongst the darkness, the unknown, something that makes you uncomfortable but fascinated at the same time. A great portrait amongst a great gallery. Cheers.

Tags: 2010 Benjamin

The National Portrait Gallery: A Place for Important White Guys

September 3rd, 2010 · 1 Comment

The National Portrait Gallery: full of important, rich, white men (and a few others). Like most large art galleries, in my experience, those prominently featured are mainly white males. There are a few portraits of Tudor women, but they are also all white. In the exhibits featuring portraits from more recent centuries, there are increasingly more women, but I can count on both hands the number of portraits of non-whites. I feel that this is partly a reflection of what was considered acceptable subject matter for paintings in earlier centuries. It was common to paint royalty and wives or daughters of important men, but it seems that women had to be extremely important to be prominently featured in a portrait.

One of my favorite portraits was one from the Tudor era. It was, like many others, the portrait of a white male. It is, however, a self-portrait. Michael Dahl, a prominent portrait painter who moved from Sweden to England in 1682, painted his self-portrait in 1691.

Self-portrait by Michael Dahl 

I loved this portrait, mainly because I am fascinated by the mere concept of self-portraits. It is amazing to me to think about different peoples’ unique perspectives. The man that Dahl saw in his mirror when painting his self-portrait is probably not the same man that others saw when looking at him. Something else I found interesting about the portrait is the choices that Dahl made when painting it. For example, he decided not to wear a wig, the opposite of how nearly all the other men of the time were depicted. He chose to stand in his portrait and to gesture at a table which held a bust and his painting implements. He chose to paint himself from the knees up, holding an artist’s smock over his arm which covers much of his lower body. This self-portrait shows us the way Dahl wanted to be remembered. He wanted to be seen in ordinary clothes, without a wig and without makeup, with the tools of his profession nearby.

Even setting aside all of the interesting choices Dahl made, I was immediately drawn to the portrait. I thought it was absolutely beautiful. Dahl’s attention to light and shadow and his depiction of different textures astounded me. I love the way the light shines on the fabric of his right shoulder and his smock. Even the shadows and detailing on his face were more remarkable to me than in many other paintings from the same era. But then, I have to wonder just how accurate the self-portrait really is. Did Dahl omit less favorable features because of personal vanity or did he paint himself exactly as others see him? Was he more or less critical of himself than others were of him? I wish I could answer these questions, but I can only make assumptions based on my limited knowledge of psychology.

Tags: 2010 Jessica