Activity - Portraiture

Look at Raphael's portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (1514-15).Consider the following aspects of the painting. What are the dominant colours used here? Has a broad palette been used? Are the dominant colours analogous or contrasting? Analyse the use of light. What effect does the background have?

A fairly narrow palette of browns and black has been used here - both in the depiction of the sitter himself, and in the depiction of the background. These are analogous, and create a harmonious feel. The lack of depth in the background leads the modelling on the skin tone and the clothing to stand out more clearly. This effect is enhanced by the single light source, coming from left to right on the picture plane. Although the sitter is static, his posture is slightly turned, which establishes rich patterns of light and shade as his clothing folds. The vividness of the portrait is also enriched by the way in which the sitter looks out directly at the viewer, establishing a relationship between the viewer and the subject of the portrait.


Look at Picasso's Weeping Woman (1937). What are the dominant features of the composition of the portrait? What is the point of view from which it appears to have been painted? What are the dominant colour relationships? Is there any evidence of modelling? Look especially at the sitter’s hat, her wrists and hands, and her cheekbones.

This is an extraordinary painting, which has divided critics. It is a portrait of one of Picasso's mistresses, Dora Maar. Wendy Beckett says that this painting has 'a terrible power', and displays 'a  vicious savagery' towards its sitter. But let's explore what the portrait is actually doing. Although it has an immediate impact, the painting is very complex, and repays slow and careful consideration.

The background of the painting establishes dominant vertical and horizontal lines. Around the centre of the top edge of the background are two dark brown vertical stripes bordered by much lighter stripes, and around one third from the bottom of the painting is a horizontal stripe running from the right edge. At the implied meeting point of these two stripes is the handkerchief, which in contrast establishes an array of diagonal lines.

As we might expect, there are several viewpoints. Whereas the right side of the sitter's face (on the left side of the painting) indicates a viewpoint in three-quarter profile, the other side of her face is also exposed to our view. But it also looks as though we're seeing two different moments in time: the sitter is both holding a handkerchief around her mouth, and holding it to her eyes. Moreover, it is as though we are looking at her mouth through the handkerchief: it is white.

There are strongly contrasting colours: red-green; yellow-violet are the dominant contrasts. There are also strong contrasts in tone, brought about in the contrast between the handkerchief and the coat the sitter is wearing. The colours for the sitter's skin are not skin tones; and moreover, the intensity of the green is emphasised by its contrast with the red of her hat.

There is little obvious sense of modelling - largely because Picasso is painting from multiple viewpoints, and modelling depends on a single viewpoint. Colour is therefore generally of a uniform tone in large patches.

However, it would be untrue to say that there's absolutely no sense of plasticity. True: the patches of colour tend to flatten out. But look at the sitter's wrists and lower hands: we have a hint there of cangiantismo, with green and yellow suggesting modelling.

And here's a thing: look at the areas in the sitter's right eye socket, and the cheekbone just below her right eye (both to the left of the painting as we face it). What we have here are a recollection of the violettomania of the Impressionists (discussed in Unit 2). Remember that the Impressionists used 'perceptual colour', observing how shadows cast by bright objects tended to show the complementary colour of those objects. Picasso seems to be doing something similar here. He's suggesting depth by using these complementaries in places that suggest perceptual colour: yellow objects casting purple shadows.

But he uses neither of these techniques - cangiantismo or 'perceptual colour' - consistently across the painting. So as our eye wanders over the painting, we form contradictory impressions: at times the plasticity of the sitter is shown; at other times, flat patches of paint are emphasised. This is undoubtedly part of the impact the painting has on us: we cannot quite interpret it.

Incidentally, this portrait brings out a very interesting question. How far should we let our knowledge of the artist's life affect our reading of a painting? Some would say that we should examine the work in its own right; others argue that we need to bring in our knowledge of an artist to help us elucidate a painting.

In the case of this painting, it makes quite a big difference. If we forget for a moment Picasso's reputation as a womaniser and a sexual predator, then it might be possible to think of the painting as an exploration of raw emotion. But if instead we think of Picasso's reputation, and speculate (as does Sister Wendy Beckett) that the 'tears were almost certainly tears caused by Picasso himself', then it's hard not to see the painting as savage. It's as though the sitter is trying to retain her dignity, covering her face with a handkerchief, carefully dressed; and yet Picasso is exposing her, removing that dignity with this portrait.


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This resource was created with the help of a University of Leeds Faculty of Arts Enterprise Knowledge Transfer Grant.

© Matthew Treherne, School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT.