Monday, December 5, 2016

Goya and the Birth of Modern Psychological Portraiture

Goya, Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga. 1787-88, Oil on Canvas. 49.7.41

Although Goya was not the first artist to add psychological elements to portraiture, he certainly is the catalyst that allowed future artists to take emotional liberties in their portrait subjects, exploring themes of death, anxiety, and isolation as opposed to older portraits which usually highlighted the status, wealth, and wellbeing of the patrons. Goya’s portrait of Manuel Osorio manages to portray the stateliness of the Osorio family, while also commenting on death, anxiety, and the nature of art itself. By exploring these themes, Goya predates and anticipates the breakthroughs of modern psychology that will arise one-hundred years later. Goya uses strange symbols, such as cats, birds, and cages, to comment on these themes. Manuel Osorio is calm, but our eyes are drawn to the anxiety and tension created by the cats about to pounce the bird. The location of the portrait isn’t clear either; where does the angelic light around Manuel’s face come from? We assume that Goya is absent from the painting, yet the bird carries a piece of paper with Goya’s name on it. Thus the question arises, what is the purpose of this portrait? Is it to praise and uplift Manuel Osorio? Is it a means Goya uses to explore psychological themes? It is both. The purpose of this gallery is to show how after Goya, portraits begin to focus primarily on the emotional state of the subject, rather than an idealistic depiction of their status. Psychological portraits still uplift the subject. However, the praise is not for the subject’s wealth and status, but rather their intellect and humanity.

Gilbert Stuart, George Washington, 1795, Oil on Canvas, 07.160 

This portrait of George Washington focuses more on the psyche of George Washington than on his status. Unlike other portraits of Washington which use objects and symbols such an eagle, quill-pens, and swords to praise Washington’s military leadership and status as a founding father, Stuart uses nothing more than light and expression to praise Washington’s stateliness and intellect. The minimal background and the mysterious source of light echoes Goya’s work, and draws attention only to the face of Washington. Stuart’s portrait helps mark a shift towards psychological portraiture, because he is more interested in depicting his subject as they are emotionally, rather than ideologically in overt praise of character through symbols.

Gustav Courbet, Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, 1848-49, Oil on Canvas, Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France.

Courbet’s portrait of Charles Baudelaire combines Courbet’s skill as a realist painter with his romantic sentimentalities. The infamous French poet Baudelaire sits reading in intense focus. By showing Baudelaire’s surrounded by ominous light and engaging in literature, Courbet captures the dark romanticism of Baudelaire’s work, as well as Courbet’s own affinity for realist portraiture, highlighting death, and the role of the artist. Baudelaire looks as if he doesn’t know he is being painted; we are shown the dark and isolated artist at work, not the artist in an idealistic depiction. 

Vincent Van Gogh, Self Portrait with Palette, 1889, Oil on Canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Van Gogh’s Self Portrait with Palette is a hauntingly beautiful reflection of the artist’s anxiety, especially in regards to his role as a painter. The isolating blue swirls that make up the background of the work isolate Van Gogh, and in their chaotic yet meditative rhythms create a sense of anxiousness. The worried expression on his face adds to the sense that he is psychologically tormented by his role as an artist. Like the portrait of Baudelaire, Van Gogh shows himself as an artist without any glory, bearing the burden of a life committed to vanity; hence the inclusion of the palette, a symbol of Van Gogh’s dedication to his art.

Edvard Munch, Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche, 1906, Oil on Canvas, Munch Museum, Oslo Norway.
Edvard Munch’s portrait of the great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is an especially interesting portrait since it was made six years after Nietzsche’s death and therefore was not a portrait Nietzsche modeled for. Rather, Munch expresses his reverence for Nietzsche by portraying him as a tormented artist. Nietzsche's sad countenance and the swooping, swirling background impress the idea that Nietzsche is contemplating his philosophical thought, sitting still while the world around him moves. Munch wants to raise up Nietzsche without idealizing him. Instead of idealization, Munch captures Nietzsche's melancholy to praise his humanity and intellect.

Frida Kahlo, Me and My Doll. 1937, Oil on Metal Canvas, Collection of Jacques & Natasha Gelman Mexico City, Mexico.

Frida Kahlo painted herself so often because, she writes, “I am so often alone and I am the subject I know best.” This painting, Me and My Doll, illustrates her themes of loneliness and isolation in a more subtle fashion than some of her other self-portraits, but this portrait descends from the line of Goya in terms of psychological intensity. She sits in a stately, calm fashion not unlike Manuel Osorio. But the strange prison-like background and the uncanny doll suggest an uncomfortable feeling of isolation, and a wish to return to childhood innocence. The doll also references Kahlo’s multiple miscarriages and her subsequent impossible desire for children. 

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