National Portrait Gallery

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This stimulus required a response from those charged with administering the will of Congress—the National Portrait Gallery Commission. It suddenly became important that that body do some philosophizing about portraiture in general and about a gallery of national portraits in particular. Among the many considerations were: What was the attitude of the United States government regarding portraits? Which men and women from the American past deserved a place in this pantheon? What criteria should be established to determine the quality of portraits to be hung? Would portraits of living persons be admitted? If so, which living persons? Would the gallery accept a picture of anyone from a donor? And finally, and most important, what constitutes a portrait?

In their search for an answer to the last question, it is doubtful that the commissioners’ thoughts went back across the centuries to prehistoric times, but that, in truth, is when portraiture began. The art of counterfeiting a likeness of an individual human being had its roots in the desire of primitive peoples to “trap” the spirit of a dead person (usually an ancestor) by making a likeness of him. Sometimes this took the form of a stone carving, like those on Easter Island, sometimes that of a plastered skull decorated to represent a certain individual. But in the sense in which we tend to think of portraiture—that is, the representation of a known personage—the first portrait of an identifiable historic figure is probably one of Narmer, the first pharaoh, who unified Upper and Lower Egypt about 3200 B.C.

The ancient Near East and the Old Kingdom of Egypt set high store by portraiture; the Greeks, on the other hand, were not much concerned with it until Alexander brought back the notion from the East. Not until Roman times did a real portrait tradition begin, reaching its apogee in the wonderfully realistic, psychologically revealing portrait busts of the soldieremperors, in which the uncompromising honesty of the artist produced minutely observed facial details- portraiture, it might be said, with the warts. For a thousand years Roman political and military leaders were honored for their achievements by having their likenesses put on public display, and posterity is richer for the custom. Then, for nearly another millennium, the tradition lay dormant. The early Christians, with their Judaic suspicion of idolatry and their eyes on another world, were too busy or too uncaring about the world around them to wish to record it.

During the Middle Ages the collecting of sculpture, a custom so highly regarded in earlier times, fell from favor; and instead, the taste of those who could afford such treasures turned more to jewelry, to rich fabrics, and to illuminated manuscripts. With the exception of some death masks of royal personages, portraiture was not really resumed until the fourteenth century, when a few sculptors began to create realistic likenesses of individual subjects. Then, with the Renaissance revival of interest in the classical world and the concept of the dignity of man, portraiture again began to thrive. In painting, it usually took the form of a likeness of the donor discreetly placed in a religious scene; gradually, royalty and the great merchant princes began commissioning separate portraits of themselves.

Along toward the end of the eighteenth century there was a great deal of experimentation going on with the camera obscura; a vogue for silhouette portraits, many of them traced from the shadow of the sitter’s profile, had inspired much of it—and as a result of the many efforts made to record these shadows on light-sensitive materials, by the 1840’s photography was a practical process. Portraiture, in the form of the photographic likeness, finally came to the masses.

More or less concurrently—by the middle of the nineteenth century, that is—the English had determined that they needed a national portrait gallery. They had always admired portraiture, to such an extent that when there were no British artists capable of recording the likenesses of their great men, talent was imported from the Continent or the great men went abroad to have their portraits painted. But admiration of itself does not build a portrait gallery, and to Philip Henry, fifth Earl Stanhope, goes credit for launching the institution which preserves so many countenances of England’s past; in 1856 he proposed in the House of Lords that Queen Victoria consider the possibility of forming “a Gallery of the Portraits of the most eminent Persons in British History.” In this effort he was materially aided by the historian Thomas Carlyle, who had written, in a letter to a friend, the best possible advertisement for such a gallery:”… in all my poor Historical investigations,” Carlyle said, “it has been … one of the most primary wants to procure a bodily likeness of the personage inquired after; a good Portrait if such exists; failing that, even an indifferent if sincere one. In short, any representation, made by a faithful human creature, of that Face and Figure, which he saw with his eyes, and which I can never see with mine, is now valuable to me, and much better than none at all.”