Historical Portraits. 'Um, made me a bit shifty-looking, haven’t you?'

5th May 2016
Now, I don’t wish to be unkind (Oh, all right, perhaps just a little) but do you ever catch a glimpse of any of those grand historical portraits of famous people – bygone kings or queens, courtiers merchants or politicians – and think to yourself, ‘how ever did the artist get away with it? With making them look so darned evil, so grim – so down right shifty?’

Historical portraits and those terrible Tudors

The Tudor era provides fertile ground. I mean, look at this – the portrait of the infamous Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein.
Tudor man in black cap, half profile portrait
Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) by Holbein.
Can any impartial observer looking upon this extraordinary character exposé of one of the more devious and unpleasant figures of the 16th century think anything other than, ‘Um … I wouldn’t trust this one any further than I could throw him’?

Or what about the feckless 3rd husband of Mary Queen of Scots, the scheming and quite possibly murderous James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell …
Elizabethan nobleman with short hair and high collar
James Hepburn (1534-1578), artist unknown.
On the evidence of this portrait would you trust this man? Would you want to buy a second-hand automobile coach and horses from him?

And, of course, there is always this well-known chap …
portrait of King Henry VIII, facing outward, flat cap and bearded
Henry VIII
Sadly, in terms of historical portraits, there is hardly a pleasant likeness of Henry VIII to be found anywhere. And probably with good reason, given what we know about him. Even this bust in the Royal Collection said to be of him as a dear little boy doesn’t look at all that benign.
sculpture or carving of young Tudor boy
Sculptured depiction of a young Henry Tudor.
I don’t know if they had sewing classes in Tudor infants’ schools. But if they did, you can’t help thinking here’s a boy you wouldn’t trust with handing out the scissors.

Renaissance historical portraits

The Tudors, though, didn’t have a monopoly on horribly revealing portraits. Don’t forget the Borgias. Our next portrait is of the power-hungry and lecherous Rodrigo Borgia, otherwise known as Pope Alexander VI:
portrait of Renaissance-era pope in profile, red clothing and cap
Rodrigo Borgia (1431-1503) by Cristofano dell’Altissimo.

And his son, Cesare, is featured in a portrait attributed to the wonderfully named Dosso Dossi:
15th century Itallian nobleman, Borgia
Cesare Borgia (c 1475-1507) by Dosso Dossi.
Like his father, Cesare was not at all averse to the odd venture into the realms of murder, sadism, incest and genocide in order to get his way. Anyone who stood in his path was disposed of ruthlessly. I can imagine a couple of his friends getting together over a glass of wine one evening. They would have concluded that he looked a bit menacing and also possibly deranged in this picture.
‘Yes, you’re probably right,’ one would have said to the other, ‘but you tell him.’

19th century historical portraits

Famous people go bad without necessarily being violent, of course. Fast forward to portraits from post-revolutionary France. Here, we have a whole batch of dodgy characters in rapid succession. For instance, the statesman, diplomat and general plotter-in-chief to anybody who was anybody in early 19th century France, Monsieur Talleyrand.
width="460" Height="398"19th century French nobleman, portrait, dark clothing
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (1754–1838) by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon.
If this was meant to be an advertisement of ‘trust me, I’m a politician,’ it is probably a bit of a failure. But if, on the other hand, it is to be seen as a clear statement of self-serving cynicism, it is a masterpiece. What did Talleyrand himself think? Did he really wish to be remembered to future generations by that haughty, withering ‘what-can-you-do-for-me’ stare? Perhaps he did!

Louis Philppe

And then there is Talleyrand’s patron, Louis Philippe, King of the French from 1830 to 1848. He was a man who even in his day was considered somewhat unscrupulous and avaricious. (see my novel The Testament of Sophie Dawes). He had numerous portraits made. Here is one of the more flattering:
portrait of19th century French nobleman in bright regalia
Louis Philippe (1773-1850) by Franz Winterhalter.
I wonder – did he come up to the artist after he had put his paint brushes down and say, ‘Jolly good – definitely captured my more benevolent and sincerely caring side there, thank you?’
Perhaps at the time these people really did not notice how cleverly they were being portrayed. Their innermost vices revealed so damningly and yet so accurately for future generations. Perhaps they were just too busy, too filled with their own self-importance to be truly objective? Or perhaps the artist was clever and diplomatic enough to be able to wriggle out of it somehow? For shifty-looking read ‘shrewd.’ For evil-looking read ‘dominant leadership.’ Historical portraits survive, therefore, as much due to diplomacy as anything else.

In this respect, I can also offer the following possible explanation from the painter Amos Roselli when, in the novel ‘The Arrow Chest,’ he is confronted by a less-than-delighted client. This is the powerful and ruthless Oliver Ramsay, Lord Bowlend, who has commissioned a full length portrait from the artist, but who upon inspecting the almost finished work one morning is not entirely pleased with what he sees.
‘Huh! Made me a bit on the corpulent side, haven’t you?’ are Oliver Ramsey’s first observations upon being shown through into the conservatory where the almost-finished portrait stands in readiness between the tall twin uprights of its easel. ‘Make me a little slimmer, eh? Or can’t you do that now?’

    Ramsey is here today for what, Amos hopes will be a lengthy uninterrupted sitting in which he will be able to observe and study how the man’s face and complexion behave in daylight and consequently to render the finishing touches to the head and shoulders.

    ‘You would not wish me to flatter your Lordship unduly,’ Amos replies with a note of banter. He would only ever address him as his Lordship when being slightly ironic. The rest of the time it was still Oliver. ‘The art world would not forgive me, nor your friends forgive you if we were to manipulate the truth for the sake of vanity.’

    ‘Yes, yes, you’re right enough, I suppose,’ the big man replies while continuing to sidle up to the work, producing his monocle from his waistcoat pocket, attaching it to his eye socket with a rough screwing motion, and with the inevitable squint and lopsided facial expression that the instrument invariably produces, continues to give the painting his critical eye.
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

You might also like

Arthur Hughes. The 'quiet' Pre-Raphaelite
small sketch of young Victorian gentleman artist, long hair
Georgian era
The Skating Minister by Sir Henry Raeburn.
small image of black-clad minister skating on ice
The Pied Piper
The cult of celebrity in Hamelin, home of the Pied Piper
book cover text, red against black background
The artist Allan Ramsay - Jacobite or Royalist?
thumbnail image of Tudor scholar, pensive
small up-arrow linking to top of page