Exercise: Research, draw or paint a classical portrait

The instructions for this exercise are regarding researching, drawing or painting a classical portrait with research being  based on 18th Century portraits and the work of Sir Joshua Reynolds initially.

My previous attempts at drawing or painting classical portraits are not in any way even remotely decent so the thought of painting or drawing another is not appealing and this I will freely admit too.  However on the other hand I have many photos of the casts of statues from my visit to Kedleston Hall so even if my attempts are feeble or basic I am prepared to at least try and my attempt will be added towards the end of this post.

The initial start of the research was getting to grips with Joshua Reynolds ‘concept of the general idea’ and I have read and re-read two essays of his – one The Idea of Beauty which appeared in Johnson’s The Idler (No. 82. November 10, 1759) and the other A Discourse IV which was in fact a lecture he gave to the students of the Royal Academy.  The lecture does make complete sense and he speaks of the differences between the Roman and Venetian schools of art very succinctly which I want to read more about to understand further – one is a liberal art and the other more mechanical  according to Reynolds  with one appearing to be more concerned with mental labour in production and the other the pleasure produced from the ornament the painting becomes as it is displayed in the homes of the period.

Reynolds in the lecture talks of retaining general ideas in painting but leaving out peculiarities – he puts in nothing that does not need to be there. Reynolds talks of the location of the portrait and then goes on to describe the composition – the person or persons need to have ground to stand on, clothing  to be worn and the background and in addition the inclusion of light and shadow but all of these cannot be seen to capture the eye of the painter or that of the spectator.    Reynolds was concerned with invention in the composition of art – artistic poetical licence is an apt term to describe his works and he speaks of the use of colour and how it can be used to great effect when less becomes more and likening the effect to  being little more than chiaroscuro.  On the other hand he also states that the use of distinct and forceful colours by contrast can also produce the same effect of grandeur as the ‘less is more’  approach – two differing artistic effects that produce the same sense and atmosphere within a painting.

Reynolds talks of the historical painter never concentrating on the details of colours and drapery in the fabrics but rather again giving a general idea of the detail whilst also paying great attention to the background props, clothes or draperies – a clever idea that does away with minute detail and simplifies the work in such a way that it becomes much more effective.

The lecture goes on in some detail about the differing in the schools with their different artistic styles and effects but my overall impression is an artist who used great intelligence to rationalize how he wanted to paint his subjects and in the way he felt would give the greatest artistic effect and for me his appeal lies both in the mental labour that has gone into each piece as well as the mental enjoyment you get when seeing one of his portraits in the grand setting of the country homes that they were intended for.

Reynolds wanted to capture the imagination of the spectator and wanted to portray his subjects within classical settings and thereby giving them, as the course material states, an ‘air of virtue and grace’ – he gives them an elegance and dignity in his portrayal of his subjects as mythical characters.  His works are both beautiful in the general concept he believed in but also his works and subjects transcend the time that has passed since to be seen as still beautiful now in the way that we perceive beauty today. What does strike me is that Reynolds felt that what he left out in detail was just as important as what he included and also that even if his subjects had deformities of some nature physically (if they were short in stature, or mean in appearance) then his job was to make them more noble and dignified in their portraits by using what is described in the lecture as poetical licence but what we may describe today as artistic licence – mythical subjects and classical props as well as careful use of colour enabled him to do this.

As I re-read this lecture again today I am further compelled to want to read more of Reynolds’ lectures due to his clearly extensive study of his fore-bearers in the art world from the Venetian to the Roman schools to the Dutch Golden Age and what he considers the main concerns of art (e.g. the artist’s relationship to tradition or just simply the purpose of art itself).

I did struggle with the lecture overall somewhat as I am not an art student of the level that Reynolds was lecturing to nor of the time period and found instead The Idea of Beauty – this essay speaks much more to me in terms of his concept of the general idea.  To summarise very briefly Reynolds talked of studying many of any one species whether plant or animal or indeed just human could enable a painter to get a generalised idea of beauty – to study just one of a species you would not be able to judge whether it was beautiful or deformed.  Reynolds felt that although there maybe countless variations in a species as each individual was and could not be identical nonetheless the general form is invariable – there are millions of people in the world but our human form remains the same no matter which country we live in.  Beauty as a concept is where something beyond the norm is considered deformity but only due to the fact that deformity is less common than beauty –  for instance as Reynolds gives an example a straight nose is considered beautiful as it is simply seen more commonly and a bent or concave nose is not and therefore would be considered deformed.  Reynolds also points out that a fact that is relevant to the age in which we live now – we like fashions and think they are beautiful as each becomes part of our life because we are used to seeing it and consequentially in his essay he states that ‘habit and custom cannot be said to be the cause of beauty, it is certainly the cause of us liking it’ and effectively if we were more used to seeing deformity it would take the place in our affections that beauty does now (and as our current society has become used to seeing deformity many are now seeing deformity or a deviance from what is considered normal as beautiful).

The general idea as a concept in summary is going back to the study of many to get a considered and generalized view of beauty.

IMG_7027Before I go on to my sketch I must make mention of two copies of portraits by Joshua Reynolds which hang in Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire.  The first is of King George II (1738-1820) and the second of Queen Charlotte (1744-1818) and the originals were painted for the Royal Academy in 1779.

IMG_6967It is not known why the Vernon family of Sudbury Hall had these pictures as it was only Ambassadors and Viceroys or those in a similar position had state portraits at the time of the King and Queen.  However according to the information at Sudbury Hall it seems that one Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren was the Ambassador to the Tsar in St Petersburg in 1802 so it is quite feasible the paintings were done for him.  Admiral Warren’s daughter Frances Maria Warren inherited all his possessions and she also married the 4th Lord Vernon and hence this is the most likely reason the paintings hang in The Great Hall.

The Great Hall was usually used for large formal dinners or entertainment by the family so is a suitable place for these works.  What for me is striking about both portraits is both subjects are not necessarily painted in a mythical nature as their clothing and obvious top status is society meant there was no need but they are still portrayed in a classical style.  The colours used are very much in keeping with other portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds but in the muted tones rather than brighter with just what I would describe as accents of a rich red in the drapes that surround the king and queen and which in turn gives emphasis to the clothing and their royal status.  The use of a primary colour such as red was commonly used by Reynolds as it would give emphasis to the subjects flesh tones  and hence I note how it is close to the face and hands of the king and queen.   Now I have studied further the style of Reynolds I want to go back to have a closer look at these paintings and will make further notes in a separate blog on Sudbury Hall.

IMG_5318So now to my portrait … I decided to use one of the photographs of the casts of the statues at Kedleston Hall as I am aware from my study so far of art history how much statues were used  as models for their works. I am also further aware of my limitations in drawing the human figure as this is something I am neither confident with or skilled at but having a photograph , (albeit not a very clear one), enables me to get a general idea of the form, shape and beauty of the figure.

Throughout my studies it has become ever more apparent how useful it was for the artists to use the classical statues in their work as the aforesaid models – the artist had a three dimensional figure that could be sketched and painted from that they could then use their poetical or artistic licence to transform into a portrait of their sitter in a classical setting and pose.

IMG_0400I decided to keep my sketch very simple and concentrate on achieving the general idea of the form and the statue – I am aware of my limitations in sketching faces and my previous attempts so purposefully decided to leave this feature blank.

I also decided to add a simple balustrade behind the statue that further shows me how the artists could have used their ‘models’ in their compositions and sketches – the actual sitter did not need to be there in person. By changing the background or the drapes the artist would have been able to change the way the sitter or subject was portrayed and the dignity and nobility they acquired.  The use of props such as urns or statues gave further emphasis on the classical nature of the portrait irregardless of whether the background was a landscape or in a building.

The art taught in the academies was very much concentrating on the realist art and sculptures and also apparently became associated with the Symbolist movement but was closer to the Neoclassical style with the emphasis on the intellectual – it is the intellectual style of this teaching that I can myself associate with Sir Joshua Reynolds and his Discourses on Art.  The statues of classical antiquity are for me personally still associated with the intellectual minds of both the original period and subsequent art movements.

One other think Reynolds did was to be aware of the way the light fell in the painting and for him the main light was on the actual subject of the work and also used to accentuate the background landscapes – part of the teaching of the academies seems to be on the use of chiaroscuro technique (light and shadow) as well as rules surrounding linear perspective and foreshortening which were in keeping with the Renaissance theory studied.

The general idea of Reynolds and the art of the academies does seem based on idealism rather than realism but with emphasis on naturalism in colour and this again for me explains the use of the idealized classical statues of antiquity.

If I go back to my sketch I am aware that I could use the general pose of the statue and as I state change the background or the foreground and direct the light source if I choose whilst also changing the clothing of the figure to suit my subject plus I can also simply choose a different statue accordingly with a different pose.

I can also now further understand why 19th Century anatomical books or anatomical classes became so popular as they would give enable study to the artist of the human figure but I think  I will stick to drawing statues!


About, Inc. 2016.  The Idea of Beauty by Joshua Reynolds [online].  [Date Accessed:  August 2016]. Available from: http://grammar.about.com/od/classicessays/a/The-Idea-Of-Beauty-By-Joshua-Reynolds.htm

Artable. 2016.  Joshua Reynolds Style and Technique [online].  [Date Accessed:  August 2016].  Available from: http://www.artble.com/artists/joshua_reynolds/more_information/style_and_technique

Authorama. Date unknown.  Seven Discourses on Art by Joshua Reynolds [online].  [Date Accessed:  August 2016].   Available from:  http://www.authorama.com/seven-discourses-on-art-1.html

Encyclopedia of Art History. Date unknown. Academic Art [online].  [Date Accessed:  August 2016].   Available from:  http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/history-of-art/academic-art.htm

National Gallery. 2016.  The National Gallery Podcast:  Episode Thirty One [online].  [Date Accessed:  August 2016].  Available from:http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/podcast/podcasts/the-national-gallery-podcast-episode-thirty-one



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