What’s in a Portrait?


The immediate answer is – an artistic interpretation of the personality of the sitter, an insight into their character, an image capturing their true self, their soul.

The thoughts I am going to share with you were triggered by a recent interview with the writer Mohsin Hamid in BBC Talking Books.  While talking about the relationship between writing a novel and reading a novel he said that the notion of self which we have is in a way a story we tell ourselves – and it is partly fictional.  When we read a novel, our own story meets and interacts with the stories of the characters of the novel – and this is a destabilising as well as reassuring, an interaction which is fundamental to being human.  My immediate thought was that this must be what happens in portraiture too.  A good portrait is a notion of a self  which is a result of the encounter between the viewer’s fictional story about himself – and the story of the portrait – and I am not saying here the story of the sitter, or the artist. The story of the portrait is in the phenomenology of the piece of art itself – it emerges from the fictional story  created by the artist when his own notion of self interacts with his perception of the sitter.  The resulting story is not just about the sitter – it could be about the sitter and anything else or many things at once – and this is what makes certain portraits  great pieces of art.

In retrospective, I realise that when I painted Nickoletta, with whom I have a very deep relationship going back many years, I did not think of her character or  personality – I was weaving a story which started the moment she sat by the window and I took that photograph. The photograph was not taken for the purpose of painting a portrait – I needed the position for a composition I was working at during that time.  However the story was already taking shape – and imposing itself – the portrait had to happen.

I have been told many times that proper portraitists do not work from a photograph. I disagree.  For a good portrait, all you need is a visual reference and a story – in your mind.

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