There’s something very special about making a portrait. It can be based on hours of scrutiny or just a few minutes, or less, of observation, and the result can capture that ‘close encounter’ when the artist’s eye somehow sees beyond the features and into the soul of the sitter.
Anew exhibition, The Encounter, at the National Portrait Gallery has gathered together some stunning examples of this ‘moment’. Sitters can often think that being painted is quite a passive thing to do – surely, you just sit there and the artist draws or paints you – but no, it’s so much deeper than that. When submitting yourself to an artist’s gaze there is nowhere to hide – your inner being is somehow exposed and the artist can’t help picking up on a subliminal, or even psychic connection. The result is often more truthful than the sitter likes to accept and can be difficult for an artist to alter an image and make it more flattering once it has been set down.
The Renaissance painters were exceptional for their desire to capture likeness. For centuries there had been a different approach to art when people were just represented rather than observered. So, if the subject happened to be royal you would put the figure in a regal pose and add a crown. The idea of absolute scrutiny was new and utterly thrilling.
The exhibition has included many of the studio sketches which would have been a preliminary part to the production of finished oil paintings. They often didn’t survive and, today, they are very fragile and light sensitive. Many of the portraits on show are rarely displayed because of this. It is an absolute delight to see drawings from the mid 1500s to mid 1600s of ‘real’ people where the connection with the artist is clear to see and sense.
Looking around the exhibition feels a bit like being at a party full of strangers whom you are interested to get to know because so much is revealed by their expressions. The likeness is doubtless there but what you also pick up on is character and personality. You might see a shiftiness in an eye, a weariness, a wariness or arrogance. The artist could not help picking up on these things.
The Encounter is on at the National Portrait Gallery until 22nd October and well worth a visit.