A fascinating U3A study day at the National Gallery focused on the varying purposes of portraiture through the ages, writes Phyllis Hughes
The secrets of great portrait painting were revealed to U3A members at a special study day at the National Gallery in London on 26 November.
Delegates heard that, far from being just a likeness of someone, there was much more to be learnt about the subject of a portrait from the setting, the accessories, the expression and the time at which it was painted.
Jo Rhymer, head of adult learning programmes for the gallery, explained that some portraits were the LinkedIn profiles of their day. For instance, the official picture of King Charles I was intended to convey his status and power.
This contrasted with paintings where a known model was used but the objective was to create a scene rather than focus on the person. Many of the settings for these paintings were depicted as mythological and had allegorical implications.
Many flattered their subjects, who were paying for the painting. Some showed whole families, indicating who the important people were and highlighting the heir to the family title.
National Gallery restorer Jill Dunkerton focused on the Portrait of the Vendramin Family by Titian. It had taken experts many years to unravel exactly who was depicted and their links to a famous religious relic shown in the painting. The latest techniques using infrared had revealed new information about the characters.
Rembrandt was the subject of the talk given by freelance educator James Heard. He quoted Rembrandt’s first biographer, who labelled the painter ‘an illiterate oik’. He said that Rembrandt changed portraiture because he did not try to glamorise his sitters. ‘He often did self-portraits, probably because it was cheaper than paying a model,’ Mr Heard said.
Associate professor at the University of Reading Simon Lee spoke about Goya, the subject of the current exhibition at the gallery. He asked delegates to think about several factors when looking at a portrait, such as likeness, character, identity and the role of the viewer themselves.
The day ended with a session on Degas by Christopher Riopelle, curator of post-1800 paintings.
‘Degas invested portraits with psychological tension,’ he said. ‘He never painted anyone who wanted to be painted. He only painted those he wanted to paint.’
Degas was in a strong position to choose, since he came from a rich background and did not have to live on the earnings from his work.
Goya, the Portraits runs at the National Gallery until 10 January.