History

The portraits of sovereigns: a political tool ?

Bryony Rose (2013), Durham University, Bachelor’s Degree in History.

        Portraits of princes nearly always contained a blend of political sentiments. From the initial ideas to their creation, they were wrought with political allegory and iconography. Panofsky’s method of studying iconography will be helpful here because as King advocates: ‘iconography transcends the realm of purely visual images. It is necessary… to determine how to read images that may function like texts.’[1] The skills of iconographical analysis and interpretation will be of most use. Portraits were ultimately designed to embody the virtues and ideals of the prince. In addition they often reflected the ‘aspirations… and pretensions of those in power.’[2] To study portraits of sovereigns, one must have an understanding of the context in which it was painted, in order to gain a sense of its purpose. Furthermore the painter, reception and audience must be considered as well as the context of the painting. Smuts acknowledges that ‘many historians fail to notice the complex visual social codes their sources often reveal.’[3] Portraits served many different functions, they were not just displayed, they were exchanged, circulated, worn to show loyalty, to remember family members, affirm bonds and relationships and were also used in diplomacy to provide information or a gift. ‘Royal portraiture was not then, a weak field onto which was impressed whatever message or ideology happened to be current; it was an important genre in its own right.’[4] Portraits were important constructs often displaying how a prince was expected to act and the spectator could expect to see the ‘human contingencies of kingship demonstrated’ effectively.[5] The image of the state was presented through the image of the prince and wherever the portrait was displayed it expressed the remote power of the sovereign it depicted. Sovereign portraits were political tools and often very effective ones.

          Portraits ought to be considered as a visual language despite the fact that they did not always portray reality. The painter needed to strike a balance between the idea of a ‘realistic portrait’ and the need to represent the idea of majesty.[6] The notion of ‘individuum’ or individuality was also an important aspect of portraiture. The level of detailed theoretical study into the art of drawing and painting that exists is testament to its significance as a discipline but also to its political significance. Aristotle’s text ‘Poetics’ (350 B.C.E) stands as a powerful piece of literary theory; the concept of ‘mimesis’ translating to ‘imitation’ or ‘representation’ he argued was the instinctual basis to humanity. Peacock articulates that ‘Aristotle’s argument makes painting the paradigm of representation, and portraiture the paradigm of painting.’[7] This level of theoretical understanding rendered the privilege of being portrayed with only the eminent people. Hilliard described art as being a very powerful resource. He expresses how certain artistic techniques helped define human qualities; ‘line is identified with truth and shadow with visual prevarication.’[8] Because Hilliard theorised about his art, he validated the claim that is was a suitable genre for the elite. Lomazzo in his work ‘Trattato’ (1584) expressed that that ‘ideas incorporated into the painting were more important than any outward appearance’. He also emphasised that portraits should capture the physical form and dignity of the sitter. Every sitter must bear the sign of his rank or social identity; monarch’s must be shown as majestic and personal defects must be glossed over or concealed. ‘Portraits must reproduce professional roles and gender stereotypes, by methods of generalisation and abstraction they must reinforce social distinctions.’[9] To Lomazzo ‘likeness’ does not appear to be the most important concept. Not all courtiers will have been aware of all these theoretical texts, but their existence and knowledge of their existence helped create an aura of importance and a socially exclusive nature around the idea of being portrayed.

          Visibility of the prince was highly important. Johannesson stresses that ‘all art and decoration was part of an instruction where examples of virtues and vices should meet the eyes and ears at every moment.’[10] The art of representation created a figure that courtiers would want to emulate elements of in their lives, as portraiture often displayed the responsibilities or functions of the sitter portrayed. Even if the sitter did not comply with every responsibility alluded to, the portrait provided sufficient evidence to a spectator that he did comply too them. Portraiture also had the power to make a dead person present and even to replace the presence of the prince in certain rooms. Johannesson alerts us to the ‘gifts’ or virtues a prince was supposed to possess, those of the body, fortune and mind; the gifts of the mind being the most important. Therefore he suggests that the portraits are supposed to be designed to ‘lead the eye and the mind to see what could not be seen.’ Courtiers would have been skilled in the practice of physiognomy; determining ones virtues by their facial features and outward appearance.[11]

leemputFig 1. Holbein, ‘The Great Picture’, 1537, copy Remigius Van Leemput, (Whitehall)

          It would appear then that part of the princes’ responsibilities was to create identities. The prince had a duty to maintain the reputations of his ancestors, to emulate their positive virtues in the present and create good examples for their successors. Elements of these responsibilities could be achieved through powerful portrait images. For the Tudor dynasty, creating a dynastic timeline was of great importance and helped to politically legitimise the ruler. Portraits were an integral part of the Tudor cultural display.[12] Figure one is in essence a ‘dynastic tableau,’ it effectively ‘proclaims the continuity of royal succession’ and is evokes powerful sentiments regarding lineage, family and the patriarch prince.[13] The aesthetics of the background contextualise the painting, as the pillars and sculptures reflect the grand building campaigns that Henry VIII embarked upon. Howarth suggests that the architectural setting of the picture was purposefully meant to be symbolic. As when the portrait was commissioned the figures portrayed existed in what he terms as a ‘claustrophobic world’, but the space they are depicted in is paradoxically empty, even with the four figures in the room.[14] The space could be explained in several ways, more likely it was part of the careful construction of the piece. Each figure will have been placed carefully to ensure that the spectator sees what they are meant to see; more in addition to the figures and impressive backdrop could distract from the wealth of detail in those existing elements. Although the painting used here is an image of Leemput’s copied version, fragments of Holbein’s initial cartoons for this painting remain and prove enlightening when considering the relationship between the prince and his artist. Holbein originally drew Henry VIII with a less direct gaze, looking out of the corner of his eyes. As one can see in the final piece Henry is depicted facing straight forward. We can assume that it was at Henry’s request to face in this manner for a more ‘direct confrontation with the spectator’ and Howarth asserts that ‘such intervention would have been entirely in keeping with how Henry VIII dealt with his artists.’[15] The stance and costume of Henry were no doubt also carefully considered. This piece accurately reflects the style of court portraiture that depicted the ‘political and commemorative exaltation of a family or dynasty.’[16]

            The portrayal of female princes needed to extend similar messages to its spectators but could achieve them in potentially alternative ways to their male counterparts and indeed to one another. Mary I and Elizabeth I’s iconographies had to prove and defend the authority of women to govern, but due to their differing religious standpoints their symbols of power differed. Elizabeth I’s iconography includes many symbols of the Virgin Mary and she was often presented as the restorer of true religion; a Protestant heroine and the saviour of England. Whereas Mary I utilised the iconography of truth which was considered as a female personification in contrast to protestant imagery, such symbols were inextricably woven into her portraits and formed part of their political significance. From 1580 onwards concept of being ‘sacred’ and ‘set-apart’ was consolidated through portraiture. Elizabeth had a lot of control over the representation of her own image and thus affirming her political authority. It was believed that she needed to be somewhat ‘mythologised and mystified,’ therefore a non-realist style of painting was needed. To portray the necessary iconographical symbols in Elizabethan portraiture, a ‘likeness’ was not the key element.

 

elizabeth_i_rainbow_portraitFig 2. Unknown, ‘The Rainbow Portrait’, 1600-1602 (Hatfield House)

           Figure 2 is one of the most famous images of Elizabeth I and ‘several iconographical strands’ run through it.[17] The rainbow in Elizabeth’s hand has attracted a lot of literary attention. Symbols of the weather were part of a tradition that helped underline meaning in portraiture. Graziani suggests that the rainbow acts as symbol of peace and cleverly a unifying symbol as it is an image relatable for all religions. He also proposes that she is holding it as a symbol of protection and assurance.[18] The Latin tag ‘Non Sine Sole Iris’ meaning ‘No rainbow without sun’ has been interpreted to mean that she as a political ruler is still bound by God.

            Another important element for interpretation lies with the eyes and ears painted on the cloak. Graziani suggests these are best explained through divine blessings; ‘she is the one who has seen and heard; an exemplary Christian and someone specially favoured.’[19] Indeed in Matthew 13:16-17 it states ‘blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.’ However an alternative explanation is put forward by Fischlin who advocates that they could symbolise the watchful gaze of the Queen and her attentive ears ‘seeing from all perspectives, hearing in all directions.’[20]  Both proposals could indeed contain elements of truth, but as the artist of the painting is not conclusively known, one must be careful not to over surmise. However, although one can look too far into a portrait in an attempt to extract meaning, there are undeniably certain aspects to this painting that were not painted without purpose, the rainbow and the eyes and ears being but two examples. Queen Elizabeth was sixty seven when this portrait was commissioned yet her timeless beauty is purposefully depicted here, she is the ageless sovereign, wearing the mask of youth; perhaps suggesting that her power lay within her youth and beauty. Also in the context of the time married women were required to wear their hair up. Graziani notes that Elizabeth’s hair is up in part, this could feasibly be a bridal reference for her unmarried status.[21] Ultimately the strength of the portrait lays in the lack of separation between secular and sacred, with her body as the ‘incarnation of political will authorised by the divine.’[22] As for the anti-naturalist feel of the portrait Howarth seems correct in articulating that what Elizabeth’s portrait lost in illusion it gained in allusion.[23]

fronts-n-0745-00-000032-wz-pyr Fig 3. Velazquez, ‘Philip IV of Spain’, 1653

           Elizabeth’s portraits remained relatively linear in their symbolic iconography. But the concepts that princes needed to portray to their spectators were not only different to one another, they also changed over time and portraiture began to reflect this. Whilst the main elements remained essential such as displaying inner virtues and majesty, political allegory was subject to change. One can discern several changes in portrait style following the Elizabethan period. Velazquez’s portrait of Philip IV in 1653 (fig. 3) is indicative of the new importance of ‘likeness’. There is some continuity from the Elizabethan period, in that Philip also had a strong influence on the pieces created of him. He had a personal preference for understatement and personally preferred works that were more true to life. Brown implies that he was ‘weary of the traditional flattery of court portraiture’ and had a ‘hostile attitude to distorting the facts or distorting his appearance.’[24] However, despite the simplicity he still bears the insignia of the order of the Golden Fleece and it is still obvious to a spectator that he is a man of great importance. The sitter holds quite a remote and indirect gaze and Brown suggests that this coupled with his simple black costume and melancholy expression are all signs of the withering monarchy.[25] However in the seventeenth century an expression of melancholy was viewed as an important virtue to be displayed by a prince, it was not always deemed as a negative quality. Nonetheless in this portrait notions of withdrawal, remoteness and melancholy are also used as political tools.

louvre-charles-ier-roi-d039angleterre           Fig. 4 Van Dyck, ‘Charles I a la chasse’, 1635 (The Louvre)

          Stuart iconography differed somewhat from Elizabethan but still reflected several elements of the Tudor iconography. Peacock asserts that the movement of portraits soon after the death of Queen Elizabeth I seemed to be a way of signifying readiness to co-operate with the new regime.[26] Also Stuart portraits often express liveliness or a sense of action and the princes are not always alone like Elizabeth. The history of the image of Charles I is complex and the numerous portraits depict many versions of the experience of authority.[27] Charles a la chasse, painted by Van Dyck (fig. 4) is an excellent example of a portrait that serves numerous political functions. Strong asserts that the portrait reflected the climate of the English court during the 1630’s. The tablet tied to the tree reads ‘CAROLVS I REX MAGNAE BRITANIAE.’ He argues that the concept of a single monarch ruling over a united Scotland and England was still a novel one, so it was important to affirm the concept and portraiture was a powerful way to achieve this.[28] The Greenwood tree is a classical reference and Charles I is probably seeking solace here in a space to contemplate. Howarth suggests that ‘his face combines encouragement and distance, condescension and command.’[29] One of Van Dyck’s most effective skills was capturing a ‘likeness’ without losing a sense of majesty and the effective combination of Howarth’s suggestions was probably part of the careful construction of the piece. Here Charles does not possess many grand outward symbols of majesty but there are subtleties within the portrait that still infer his internal qualities. The horse has been painted smaller, so as not to dominate the king in the picture; tradition of horsemanship in portraiture represents a common expression of superiority. Portraiture however, did reflect the politics of the time and by contrast, during the political and military difficulties of the 1640’s, Roberts acknowledges that the hair, ‘both on the head and on the chin became both shorter and thinner, the expression more care worn, the eyes more pronounced and doleful.’[30]

        The princes’ choice of court artist was significant. Artists were chosen because of their international representation and many princes shared artists. Artists’ skills had the power to transform and in some cases immortalise certain representations, such as Van Dyck with the novelty of expression and action in portraiture. The task of the royal artist was no mean feat and as Tittler summarises effectively ‘the more modest the patrons’ social status, the more likely were such requirements to be met by native…English painters of local province, with a more insular outlook and modest skills.’[31] The relationship between painter and sitter appears for the most part to have been a reciprocal one, for the image once displayed was ‘as much venerated for its royal sitters as for its talented artist.’[32] Howarth also draws our attention to the physical proximity esteemed painters found themselves in. Such as Holbein and Van Dyck who both created very powerful images of princes. As court artists they were aware of one another and Howarth argues that there is a real possibility that one inspired the other, he uses ‘The Great Picture’ and ‘The Great Piece’ as examples.[33]

         The choice of location for display is another key point. Van Dyck’s portraits of Charles I were probably always intended for prominent locations, picked for the nature of the audience it would receive. Such detailed, iconographical representations were no doubt best placed in a setting offering the best chance that its viewer would know how to read it. Often new spaces were created to house certain collections or portraits. When portrait collecting became fashion the order that the paintings were arranged also became important. Portraits often acquired meaning when portrayed in groups or ensembles. Abraham van der Doort’s work on Charles I’s collection, details how portraits were grouped, how they were mixed with other paintings and how they were displayed in public or private areas.

          How effective these portraits were in conveying the messages laid out at their fruition is difficult to conclude. No doubt courtiers were expected to understand the techniques of observation regarding portraiture but there will always have been varying levels of appreciation; some may not even have taken the time to look. Portraits may not have always been received as they were intended. Smuts points out that the ‘peers and gentry who visited the court did see paintings, but they also saw many other impressive objects of greater monetary value.’[34] In the context of collecting these items may well have been of greater interest to a visiting ambassador or noble. Portraits meanings and significance also change over time and portraits could also acquire new meaning in different places, as part of a collection. Strong is correct in professing that it would be ‘wrong to overstress allegory, complexity and psychology for most conventional portraiture.’[35] But the pictures chosen here, all be it they may have been copied and displayed in individual households were first and foremost formed as complex iconographical structures. They were constructed with the intention to convey political messages both directly and indirectly, and be displayed for the benefit of those expected to be able to read them. Although one must not, in the words of Sharpe ‘be seduced or controlled by the force of the text of the royal image,’[36] the power of the politics of portraiture must not be underestimated. All princes engaged with it, and although certain styles may have gone out of fashion, the core purposes of portrayal appear to have remained and the depiction of the state through the virtues of the prince is an undeniably political concept.

References

[1] J. N. King,  Tudor royal iconography: literature and art in an age of religious crisis (London, 1989), p. 6

[2] J. Brown, ‘Enemies of Flattery: Velazquez portraits of Philip IV’, in R. I. Rotberg and T. K. Rabb, (eds), Art and History (Cambridge, 1988), p. 137

[3] R. M. Smuts, ‘Art and the material culture of majesty in early Stuart England’, R. Malcom Smuts (ed), The Stuart Court and Europe (Cambridge, 1996), p. 112

[4] S. Schama, ‘The domestication of majesty: royal family portraiture 1500-1850’, in R. I. Rotberg and T. K. Rabb, (eds), Art and History (London, 1988), p. 159

[5] K. Sharpe, ‘The royal image; an afterword’ in T. Corns, (ed.), The royal image: representations of Charles I (Cambridge, 1999), p. 293

[6] F. Checa Cremades, ‘Monarchic liturgies and the Hidden King: the function and meaning of Spanish royal portraiture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries’, in Ellenius (ed.), Iconography, propaganda and legitimacy (Oxford, 1998), p. 100

[7] J. Peacock, ‘The Politics of Portraiture’, in Sharpe and Lake (eds.), Culture and Politics in early Stuart England (1994), p. 207

[8] Ibid, p. 205

[9] Peacock, ‘The Politics of Portraiture’, p. 211

[10] K. Johannesson, ‘The portrait of the prince as a rhetorical gesture’, in Ellenius (ed.), Iconography, propaganda and legitimacy (Oxford, 1998), p. 19

[11] Ibid, p. 28

[12] R. Tittler, Portraits, Painters and Publics in Provincial England, 1540 – 1640’ (Oxford, 2012), p. 18

[13] Schama, ‘The domestication of majesty’, pp.162-3

[14] D. Howarth,  Images of Rule (London, 1997), p. 89

[15] Ibid, p. 82

[16] Checa Cremades, ‘Monarchic liturgies and the Hidden King’, p. 75

[17] J. H. King, ‘The royal image, 1535-1603’, in D. Hoak (ed.), Tudor political culture (London, 1995), p. 132

[18] R. Graziani, ‘The Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I and its religious symbolism’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (1972), pp. 248-50

 

[19] Graziani, ‘The Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I’ pp. 255-56

 

[20] D. Fischlin, ‘Political allegory, absolutist ideology, and the “Rainbow Portrait” of Queen Elizabeth I’, Renaissance Quarterly, 50 (1997), p. 183

[21] Graziani, ‘The Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I’, p. 258

[22] Fischlin, ‘Political allegory’, p. 198

[23] Howarth,  Images of Rule, p. 110

[24] Brown, ‘Enemies of Flattery: Velazquez portraits of Philip IV’, p. 149

[25] Ibid, p. 153

[26] Peacock, ‘The Politics of Portraiture’, p. 199

[27] Sharpe, ‘The royal image’, p. 292

[28] R. Strong,  Van Dyck: Charles I on horseback (1972), p. 95

[29] Howarth,  Images of Rule, p. 134

[30] J. Roberts, The King’s head: Charles I, King and martyr (London, 1999), p. 4

[31] Tittler, Portraits, Painters and Publics , p. 26

[32] K. Sharpe, ‘The royal image’, p. 293

[33] Howarth,  Images of Rule, p. 85

[34] Smuts, ‘Art and the material culture of majesty’, p. 96

[35] R. Strong, The English icon: Elizabethan & Jacobean portraiture (1969), p. 37

[36] K. Sharpe, ‘The royal image’, p. 290

Pictures

Fig 1. Holbein, ‘The Great Picture’, 1537, copy Remigius Van Leemput, (Whitehall)

Fig 2. Unknown, ‘The Rainbow Portrait’, 1600-1602 (Hatfield House)

Fig 3. Velazquez, ‘Philip IV of Spain’, 1653

Fig 4. Van Dyck, ‘Charles I a la chasse’, 1635 (The Louvre)

 

Brown, J. ‘Enemies of Flattery: Velazquez portraits of Philip IV’, in R. I. Rotberg and T. K. Rabb, (eds), Art and History (Cambridge, 1988)

Checa Cremades, F. ‘Monarchic liturgies and the Hidden King: the function and meaning of Spanish royal portraiture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries’, in Ellenius (ed.), Iconography, propaganda and legitimacy (Oxford, 1998)

Fischlin, D. ‘Political allegory, absolutist ideology, and the “Rainbow Portrait” of Queen Elizabeth I’, Renaissance Quarterly, 50 (1997)

Graziani, R. ‘The Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I and its religious symbolism’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (1972)

Howarth, D. Images of Rule (London, 1997)

Johannesson, K. ‘The portrait of the prince as a rhetorical gesture’, in Ellenius (ed.), Iconography, propaganda and legitimacy (Oxford, 1998)

King, J. H. ‘The royal image, 1535-1603’, in D. Hoak (ed.), Tudor political culture (Cambridge, 1995)

King, J. N. Tudor royal iconography: literature and art in an age of religious crisis (London, 1989)

Peacock, J. ‘The Politics of Portraiture’, in Sharpe and Lake (eds.), Culture and Politics in early Stuart England (Hampshire, 1994)

Roberts, J. The King’s head: Charles I, King and martyr (London, 1999)

Schama, S. ‘The domestication of majesty: royal family portraiture 1500-1850’, in R. I. Rotberg and T. K. Rabb, (eds), Art and History (Cambridge, 1988)

Sharpe, K. ‘The royal image; an afterword’ in T. Corns, (ed.), The royal image: representations of Charles I (Cambridge, 1999)

Smuts, R. M. ‘Art and the material culture of majesty in early Stuart England’, R. Malcom Smuts (ed), The Stuart Court and Europe (Cambridge, 1996)

Strong, R. The English icon: Elizabethan & Jacobean portraiture (London, 1969)

Strong, R. Van Dyck: Charles I on horseback (London, 1972)

Tittler, R. Portraits, Painters and Publics in Provincial England, 1540 – 1640’ (Oxford, 2012)

Vlieghe, H. (ed.), Van Dyck 1599-1999: conjectures and refutations (London, 1999)

 

 

 

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