Whose Face Is This? On the Characteristic Features of the Portrait Genre of the Second Half of the 19th and Early 20th Centuries

Jolita Mulevičiūtė (PDF)

In the second half of the 19th century, photography became an aiding medium in the work of portrait painters. Commercial carte-de-visite photographs were frequently used as a substitute for the sitter. The new method, often applied in Vilnius art workshops and by individual artists, made the painting process less complicated and more accessible. Thus, representative portraits in oil became affordable for the social elite, the gentry and townspeople.

Although outwardly harmless, this union of photography and painting dramatically affected the evolution of portraiture.

The painter who took advantage of the carte-de-visite has fallen into dependence on conventional hypervisuality, characteristic of this type of photograph. Still, the painter’s attempts to equalise the photographer were vain. The efforts to blur the line between reality and art and to make the artwork depersonalised and homogeneous optical fabric resulted in the formalism of artistic expression. It is more important that attempts to replicate a commercial photograph through an artwork led to the destruction of the essential feature of a representational portrait, the ability to represent, i.e., stand for the person depicted and make a conditionally independent image rather than a picture alone.

An excellent example of the interaction between photography and painting is the work ‘A Woman with a Headdress’ (1890) by a famous Vilnius painter, Wincenty Sleńdziński. Obediently following the universal patterns of photography of the time, this canvas attests to the presence of a person. However, it does not provide specific information related to her personality. Therefore, it may be well-assumed that the art historian, being neither able to identify the sitter as a person nor make any interpretation, would be forced to invent the hero of the artwork. Avoiding the information vacuum, he (she) will make a mistake by returning to the array of traditional stylistic and iconographic research of painting and employing customary analysis patterns for such an art piece.

The contact of painting with photography necessitated the crisis of the portrait genre and encouraged discussions of realism and truth in art. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, some artists abandoned the use of photographs. In contrast, others started looking for new methods to employ photographic images and use the possibilities provided by amateur photography.

Keywords: portrait painting, photography, carte de visite, reproduction of images, hypervisuality, identity, realism