Strike a pose — The changing face of full-length portraits

Once the preserve of gods, full-length portraits have been used over the centuries to boost the status of kings and commoners alike, as Andrew Graham-Dixon explains


Every good story needs its subplots — think of Shakespeare, think of the Bible, think of Homer’s Odyssey, which is arguably more subplot than plot — and the story of art is no exception. I was reminded of this by a compelling exhibition staged earlier this year at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Entitled High Society, its subject was the full-length portrait in Western painting, from Lucas Cranach, whose paired portraits of Henry the Pious, Duke of Saxony, and his bride, Catherine of Mecklenburg, painted in 1514, are arguably the first examples of the genre, to Kees van Dongen, whose depiction of Anna, Comtesse Mathieu de Noailles, as a pearl-wreathed wraith standing tall in a darkened room, was created more than four centuries later, in 1931. The show was small but perfectly formed, consisting of some 35 seriously excellent pictures, including masterpieces by Velázquez, Veronese, Moroni, Gainsborough, Sargent and many more.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Henry the Pious, Duke of Saxony, 1514. From High Society at the Rijksmuseum, 8 March-3 June 2018

Catherine, Countess of Mecklenburg, 1515. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. From High Society at the Rijksmuseum, 8 March-3 June 2018

I love an exhibition that makes me reflect upon works of art I think I am familiar with, that makes me see them in a new way, and High Society  certainly did that. In fact, it has made me rethink, and in a sense re-see any number of my favourite full-length portraits — and by no means just the ones that the exhibition actually included — by helping me to understand that the tradition they embody does indeed amount to a tellable story within the larger story of art.

It is a tale that begins, like so many, with a power struggle: the struggle of the powerful to be recognised. In the Western art tradition, full-length portraiture actually begins not with painting but with sculpture: namely with the portraits of gods and heroes created during antiquity. Think of those great warrior figures, the Riace bronzes, dredged up from the coastal waters of Calabria; think of the Apollo Belvedere.


The Apollo Belvedere, Roman sculpture (copy after a Greek bronze original by Leochares, dating back to 350-325 BCE). Vatican City, Museo Pio-Clementino. © 2018. Photo Scala, Florence

Of course, such objects lie well outside the scope of any exhibition devoted to painted full-length portraits, but they are the essential background context to the genre, which first came into existence precisely in order to glorify European rulers and aristocrats: to present them to their subjects as heroes and, sometimes, with a sacrilegious frisson, as gods. This is why the very earliest full-length portraits, like Cranach’s depictions of the Duke of Saxony and his bride, seem so stiff and sculptural: the sitters — or should that be standers? — have been made to resemble sculptures placed in niches. Sculpture is the medium to which many of the early full-length portraits aspired, because sculpture was associated with divinity, power and even a kind of immortality, qualities to which those who commissioned such portraits were implicitly laying claim.


Studio of Hans Holbein the younger, King Henry VIII, c. 1543-47. Oil on oak panel. Petworth House and Park, West Sussex. Photo: © National Trust Images/Derrick E. Witty

An even better example than Cranach’s pair of full-lengths is Hans Holbein’s Whitehall Mural, painted for Henry VIII some 20 years later in London. Long since destroyed by fire, Holbein’s masterful portrayal of a dauntless king and his dynasty can still be appreciated in several workshop copies that have survived. 

One of the most impressive is at Petworth House in West Sussex, and although it is only an excerpt from the original, presenting the king’s image alone, it shows us very clearly the way in which Holbein presented Henry, as if he were a sculpture come startlingly to life: he is even posed directly in front of a niche decorated with a great golden shell, as if he might just have stepped down from it. 

The composition is peculiarly airless, occupied by the full-frontal bulk of the monarch, who gazes out at his posterity with steely self-assurance, like a god come down to earth. Holbein has made a king look like a statue, but not just any statue: he is the Olympian Zeus, for all that he is wearing doublet and hose and the largest codpiece in England.


Hans Holbein the Younger, Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan, probably 1538. Photo: National Gallery, London, UK/Bridgeman Images

Other, more instrumental purposes were found for the full-length portrait during the early 16th century, when the genre first flourished. Henry persuaded Holbein to paint his prospective bride, Christina of Denmark, in full length: not because he desired to see her portrayed as a goddess, but because he wanted to be able to inspect the figure and bearing, as well as the face, of a woman he had never met. He wanted to size her up, and needed to see her life-size to do so.

The picture, which hangs today in London’s National Gallery, gives me the impression that Christina did not entirely enter into the screen-test spirit of the portrait painter’s enterprise: she looks tense and watchful, which is hardly surprising given Henry’s penchant for terminating his marriages with the executioner’s axe. The courtship, unsurprisingly, came to nothing.

Such experiments aside, for a century and more the full-length portrait remained the preserve of monarchs and aristocrats keen to assert their power. Titian brought new psychological depth to the genre in his portrayals of Charles V and, later, Philip II, presenting them less as gods than as modern versions of the hero-kings of classical antiquity: eyes clouded with thought, brows furrowed with the cares of state.

One hundred years later, Van Dyck in turn would impart a new theatrical flourish to the full-length in his portraits of Charles I and his court, posing the king and his wife Henrietta Maria beneath swags of windswept drapery that both aggrandise and, with hindsight, peculiarly diminish them: after all, we know, as they never could, that their unshakeable belief in the divine right of kings would soon be consumed in the fires of the English Civil War.


Hyacinthe Rigaud, Louis XIV, 1701. Photo: © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre)/Gérard Blot

The one baroque power portrait that seems to me to have stood the test of time, undimmed and undaunted by the upheavals of history, is Hyacinthe Rigaud’s astonishing depiction of Louis XIV in his coronation robes, in the Louvre. Swathed in what must be at least 100 square metres of fleur-de-lis ermine, the king stands before us, elbow out-thrust, a gesture which, according to deportment manuals of the time, signalled the god-given right of the high-born to elbow their way through any crowd of commoners.

The rest of the picture is a maelstrom of silk and damask and tassels of gold, collectively embodying the resurgence of the French textile industry — and, by implication, all French industry — under the reign of the Sun King. It is a picture that gives form and colour to Louis XIV’s boldest assertion — ‘L’état, c’est moi’ — and Louis himself loved it; so much so that, whenever he had to leave Versailles on state business, he ordered that it be hung above his throne: an illusion of the king so compelling that it could stand in for the king himself.

All this might make the full-length portrait sound like a rather serious, humourless genre of painting, but in fact the opposite is the case; because, like most theoretically high forms of art, it has been subject to all sorts of subtle parody and distortion over the centuries. When Napoleon commissioned Jacques-Louis David to paint his own full-length portrait, more than 100 years and one rather large revolution after Rigaud had painted Louis XIV, he surely had that earlier image of the Sun King at the forefront of his mind.


Jacques Louis David, L’Empereur dans son cabinet de travail aux Tuileries, 1812. Collection particulière. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais/Gérard Blot

David’s portrait of Napoleon turns Rigaud’s portrait upside down, or at least reverses it at every turn. Whereas Louis is depicted in an imaginary throne room, doing absolutely nothing except look good, David shows Napoleon in his study, working with a nearly inhuman dedication. 

On the desk beside him lie piled the papers of the Code Napoléon, giving form to a new French state. The candles behind him are guttering. The midnight oil was burned long ago: the hands on the clock tell us that it is 12 minutes past four in the morning. Napoleon has bags under his eyes. This, the portrait insists, is what leadership looks like, after 1789 and all that. The new emperor of a new France might be a Corsican from nowhere, but he has worked his way to the top and he deserves to be there.


Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-69), The Nightwatch, 1642. Oil on canvas. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands/Bridgeman Images

The full-length portrait, seen as the exclusive domain of blue-blooded kings and their kin, had in fact been subject to multiple subversions well before the French Revolution. In the Netherlands, during the country’s so-called Golden Age around the middle two-thirds of the 17th century, there had been a tremendous vogue for full-length portraits among the proud burghers of the newly independent Dutch Republic. Single sitters were painted by Rembrandt and Frans Hals, for example, although the wittiest examples of the genre are to be found in those painters’ group portraits of local militia companies.

Rembrandt’s Night Watch  is the most famous of such pictures, although I think it was Hals who really nailed what it meant to the Dutch to be painted in full length. He revelled in depicting the worthies of his home town, Haarlem, as if they were homegrown, turbulent equivalents to the Spanish or English aristocrats painted by the likes of Van Dyck or Velázquez.

Being Dutch, and burghers rather than aristocrats, they must have greatly enjoyed taking on the airs and graces of those who had tried and failed to conquer them. Thrusting their elbows out at those whose elbows they had blunted, dressed in all their finery and lace, standing or sitting at tables that groan with Dutch cheese, beef and fish, they occupy a genre that they know full well had never been meant for the likes of them. But it was their country now and they could do what they liked. They had earned their money, and if they wanted to spend it on paintings that made them look like princes, who was to stop them?

Many of my favourite parodies of the grand-manner portrait were created in England during the 18th century

The 17th century marked the beginning of the end of absolutism, a loosening of social bonds that would increasingly be reflected in a widening clientele for the full-length portrait — and a growing tendency on the part of artists to treat what had been the great genre of absolutist power with something less than utter respect.

In England, Peter Lely was Van Dyck’s successor as court painter to the newly restored Stuart monarchy, but although he painted grand, full-length portraits for Charles II, they are decadent and disenchanted by comparison with those painted by Van Dyck for the court of Charles I. Lely might dress up the king’s mistress as a nymph or goddess, but we know that he knows that she knows it is only a charade, a sexy piece of fancy dress rather than a genuine proclamation of belief in the sitter’s quasi-divine status.

The knowing diminution or dilution of the genre proceeded apace in the 18th century, although often in such a way as to make more of people who once — like the burghers of Amsterdam a century earlier — might never have dreamed of finding themselves depicted in such style. Many of my favourite parodies of the grand-manner portrait were created in England during the 18th century.

Hogarth’s wonderfully affectionate depiction of the self-made merchant Thomas Coram — who looks at first sight a little like Rigaud’s Louis XIV, until you realise that the billowing drapery enfolding him is actually a battered seafarer’s jacket, and the silver ringlets encircling his head are his own hair rather than a wig — is Hogarth’s way of saying that men like this are worth celebrating just as much as the monarchs of the past.


Sir Joshua Reynolds, Jane Fleming, later Countess of Harrington, c. 1778-79. San Marino, The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. From High Society at the Rijksmuseum, 8 March-3 June 2018

Then there are Sir Joshua Reynolds’s depictions of actresses, or prostitutes made good, in the guise of nymphs or naiads, and Gainsborough’s full-length portraits of ever-so-worldly miladies, some of whom ooze so much sex appeal that trees in the landscape behind them — I am thinking, in particular, of his portrait of Countess Howe at Kenwood House in London — sprout branches mischievously contrived to resemble erections.

As the 18th century gave way to the 19th, and European society became more and more permissive, almost anyone with enough money and vanity or pretension might dare to have themselves painted in full length. It was a development that reached its apogee at the turn of the 20th century, by which time the most accomplished painters of full-length portraits — the likes of John Singer Sargent, or William Orpen, or Giovanni Boldini — might well earn the price of a townhouse in Paris or London by painting a single picture. The more scandal surrounding the sitter, the more publicity the painter would get, and the higher his price next time around.


Giovanni Boldini, Marchesa Luisa Casati with a Greyhound, 1908. Private collection. From High Society at the Rijksmuseum, 8 March-3 June 2018

It is a cycle that helps to explain why painters pulled out all the stops for their most decadent or outré clients: hence Sargent’s tour de force in red, his portrait of Dr Samuel Jean Pozzi, below, who was not only the father of French gynaecology, but also a confirmed sex addict and libertine who routinely attempted to seduce his female patients (before being shot dead by a man whose impotence he had failed to cure).

Hence, too, Boldini’s astonishingly intense portrait of the nine-tenths mad Marchesa Luisa Casati, who spent her considerable fortune on parties and cocaine. So proud was she of her jet-black eyes and hair, she is said to have glued strips of black velvet to her eyebrows to enhance the effect (looking at Boldini’s brilliant, blurry rush of a portrait, I have often wondered if she is wearing those same velvet eyebrows in it; I also wonder if she hadn’t offered the painter some of her cocaine before he started work).


John Singer Sargent, Dr Pozzi at Home, 1881. The Armand Hammer Collection, Gift of the Armand Hammer Foundation, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. From High Society at the Rijksmuseum, 8 March-3 June 2018

Then suddenly, around the time of the First World War, the full-length portrait loses its energy and begins to fade from view. There were a number of reasons for this. For one thing, the carnage of the most appalling conflict in human history made luxury and decadence seem like the last things anyone should be flaunting. For another, the growing strength of avant-garde ideas about what art should be — namely, against institutions, against the rich, the nouveau riche and the bourgeois alike; edgy, experimental and independent — drove most serious artists away from portraiture altogether.

Having exhausted this particular subplot, you might say, the story of art moved on; and so it was that the full-length portrait began to die the slow death that it is still, today, slowly dying. But it was fun, or at least very interesting, while it lasted.

Related departments

Related lots

Related auctions

Related content