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Brock prof reflects on divisive history of portraits

Linda Carreiro says tension has long existed between an artist’s approach and the way artwork is viewed, particularly when its subject is famous
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The public’s divided response to portraiture — as recently seen with works depicting King Charles III and Catherine, Princess of Wales — is as old as the art form itself, says Linda Carreiro.

The Brock University Professor and visual artist says tension has long existed between an artist’s approach and the way artwork is viewed, particularly when its subject is famous. That division has only become more apparent in the age of social media, with portraits gaining much wider public reach.

“One of the most fascinating aspects about this tradition is the friction that invariably results from an unveiled portrait, both arising from expectations of the sitter, who wishes to be viewed a certain way, and the public, who see the subject as iconic and not as open to artistic interpretations,” Carreiro says.

Portrait painting was historically reserved for those deemed deserving of lasting representation — those who held power, fame, beauty or wealth.

“But, in the past 200 years, there has emerged a different type of portraiture depicting working-class, under-represented and marginalized individuals,” Carreiro says.

While the subjects of portraits have become more diverse, the desire to commission a painted legacy of well-known individuals who are considered societally “valuable” continues, with entire museums, boardrooms and chambers adorned with such artwork.

In the case of royalty or other famous people who commission a portrait, the value to both sitter and artist is significant, Carreiro says, as the art cements long-standing attributes of prominence and posterity and often fetches enormous sums at future auctions.

“If the artist is well known, the sitter is bestowed additional celebrity; if the artist is less recognized internationally, there is anticipated opportunity to launch a more lucrative career,” she says.

Conventionally, a painter develops the artwork while the subject is present, says Carreiro, who has many years of portraiture under her belt. The portrait then becomes the result of an interpersonal dynamic and response between the artist and the subject, similar to any other relationship.

In the case of Jonathan Yeo’s portrait of King Charles, however, the sittings were clearly followed with the use of a reference photograph to complete the piece. This means there was more intention to how the painting was constructed, with less influence of the sitter in the environment, she says.

“This is in line with the shift in current portraiture generally, where selfies are controlled and excessively edited to create a highly managed public persona,” Carreiro adds.

Whether the viewer enjoys the portrait or not, she says it is clear that “as long as artists are commissioned to depict and interpret famous subjects, so too will there be strong reactions to the portrait — offering an opportunity to think about the fascinating exchanges between artist, sitter and audience.”