In honor of the unveiling of the Duchess of Cambridge’s official royal portrait (see it here), I want to discuss portraits. I won’t offer an opinion on her portrait except to say, I’ve seen better, and if I’d paid for it, I’d get my money back. But I digress.
Portraits. They’re a window into the personalities of the past, a fleeting and perhaps not too honest glimpse at the people who continue to captivate us today. In the painted or sculpted eyes, we look for traces of the person we’ve read about while projecting our own ideas and opinions of that person on to the image. Whatever you may think of Pharaoh Akhenaton, if you think of him at all, you can’t help but be awed when standing beneath one of his massive statues. To look on the sculpture of Thutmose III, perhaps the greatest Pharaoh Egypt ever knew, is to see nothing of the person and everything of the image of Pharaoh. This is true of most portraiture up until the Renaissance. Though there were quick flashes of individuals during the late Roman period, for the most part, history has left us with stylized images of figures both great and small.
I’ve heard it said by historians that Henry VIII and the Tudors enjoy the lasting fame they do because they were the first monarchs to be painted in a realistic way. Personally, I think Henry having had six wives and killing two of them might have something to do with his notoriety. However, I’m a romance writer not a historian, so I could be wrong. We are fascinated by Henry VIII and his descendants because we feel we know them, or that we can see something of their true personalities in the beautiful paintings of Holbein and others. The Tudors come to life in a way prior monarchs had not, and the tradition continued until the advent of photography.
With photography, the painted portrait has waned. Everyone who is no one can now have a great shot of themselves, or perhaps a not so great shot of them drunk and posted on the internet for all to see forever. Future generations will have a vast photo-record of our great people and may perhaps lose the wonder of standing in front of a painting and feeling the mystery of the person staring back. I love photographs as much as the next person, but in documenting every nanosecond of our lives, we might have lost something and deprived future generations of the sense of mystery or wonder of standing in front of a portrait.