The Gaze has often been used in art history to show autonomy and self-worth. This has been used in many different ways, especially to give dignity to a person when may otherwise be the subject of pity or discrimination. It has been said that the eyes are the window to the soul .A subject who looks back at the viewer confronts them and challenges the way that they see the portrait; not simply as a painting but as a person with a story to tell. The gaze has been a crucial part of many of the greatest portraits in art history, from the Mona Lisa to the Afghan Girl. It has been used as an instrument of social change, to challenge stereotypes and disrupt ordinary ways of thinking. Artists have used it to show respect for the person they are portraying or to challenge viewer to see them in a new light. Especially for female portraits, looking directly into the eyes of the viewer is a way of challenging the male gaze that so often pervades art and culture. Often scandalous, often celebrated, portraits with eyes that follow the viewer stand out across the history of art as something special.
Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, c. 1503-05,Oil on Panel, (Musée du Louvre)
Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa revolutionized the way that portraiture was approached, especially for women. Early Renaissance portraits of were generally simple profiles, showing just the head and shoulders. The Mona Lisa faces forwards, gazing directly into the eyes of the viewer. This is no object to be seen, but a humanized portrait, challenging the viewer to see her as an individual full of life and personality, in contrast to the flat, stylized depictions seen before. She is graceful and dignified, with a hint of a smile on her face that has fascinated her audience ever since she was painted.
Velázquez, Portrait of Juan de Pareja, 1650, Oil on canvas, 1971.86(Met)
The Portrait of Juan de Pareja is unusual for the way it paints the subject in such way that elevates him above his rank as a slave in early modern Spain. His eyes unfailingly follow the viewer, leading to a visually arresting work that seems almost to challenge the audience. This is a portrait of surprising dignity and honor. The painting is simple but striking, not by virtue of any embellishment but by the unbroken gaze of its subject.
Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, oil on canvas, (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)
Up until Olympia was painted the female nude had always been within the context of mythology or allegory. The bold stare and modern context of a prostitute came as a shock to the original audience, and the painting underwent heavy criticism when it was first made. Prostitutes has always been used as models for Venus figures and the like, but although the paintings and the women depicted in them were held in high regard, the models that posed for them were degraded and criticized for posing. Manet’s painting of a woman who gazed at the viewer in complete confidence in her own sexuality challenged them with the reality of the female nude in their own time.
Vincent van Gogh, Head of a Fisherman with a Fringe of Beard and a Sou'wester, pencil, wash, ink, watercolor, paper, c.1883, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Van Gogh’s drawing of a Head of a Fisherman is one of many drawings and paintings of the working class and peasants he did. The artist had an interest in serving the impoverished and downtrodden all his life. In this portrait an old fisherman looks directly at the out at the viewer, his face crossed with lines, weathered by many years of work. He seems almost to quietly challenge the viewers to see the people they have forgotten.
Pablo Picasso, La Celestina, 1904, Oil on Canvas, Musée Picasso
This portrait of a woman with one blind eye is from Picasso’s blue period, where he painted many of the destitute people he saw around him, finding beauty in the faces of beggars, prostitutes, and out of work performers. This particular painting of Celestina differs from other blue period works in that she does not seem hopeless, but gazes intensely at the viewer with her one good eye. It is a portrait of vitality and presence in the midst of poverty and despair.
Steve McCurry, Afghan Girl, 1984,photograph, recently shown at Palazzo delle Arti
The piercing gaze of the Afghan Girl has made it arguably the greatest photo of our time. It is a portrait of a young girl in a refugee camp in Afghanistan. She is facing the viewer and fixes them with a penetrating gaze. This is no cry for pity but a portrait of dignity in the face of the horrors of war. The photograph was instrumental in bringing aid to the refugee camps in Afghanistan.
Shirin Neshat, Rebellious Silence, Women of Allah series,1994, B&W RC print & ink, Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussel
Shirin Neshbat challenges stereotypes of Muslim women through her powerful black and white photographs. Rebellious Silence shows a woman who stares at the camera, holding a rifle that divides her face, which is covered in writing. It is a challenge to see beyond the labels often given to Muslim women and the oppression that they frequently face. The gun, veil, and poetry covering her face area all nuanced symbols tied to subjugation and liberation. The woman’s gaze is challenging, but not hostile, and the photograph had a quiet beauty that contrasts the ferocity of its theme.