Assignment 2: Studio Practice; Task 2: Portrait – research

Assignment 2: Studio Practice; Task 2: Portrait – research

For this task we should photograph a portrait – using classical painting as inspiration. In our hand-outs we received following instructions:

  1. Research classic portrait paintings in books, magazines and websites
  2. Choose one that you would like to interpret in the studio
  3. Built a set-up
  4. Use preferred light source and studio accessories to illuminate the subject in a creative manner
  5. Record well exposed images
  6. Evaluate your work

When thinking of an inspiration for my portrait I was immediately drawn to the works of Dutch Masters. (“Old Master” refers to any painter of skill who worked in Europe before 1800). During Dutch Golden Age, spanning 17th century, the new Dutch Republic was the most prosperous nation in Europe and at the forefront of the trade, science and art. At the time of changing religious and cultural traditions art needed to reinvent itself and largely succeeded. Dutch painting of that period comes under Baroque style, and although shows most of its characteristics, it lacks the idealisation and splendour, in favour of detailed realism of Early Netherlandish paintings. Another distinctive feature of the the period was the relatively small amount of religious paintings, forbidden in churches by Calvinism, but allowed in private homes. There was a hierarchy of genres.

Portraits were second most prestigious genre, after history paintings, and followed by everyday scenes, landscape and still life as the lower categories. Dutch specialised in small paintings in the lower categories and enormous qualities were produced, which also meant the prices were fairly low. They were usually not commissioned, as opposed to portraits which were done for growing amount of merchants, more ready to pay for it. There is estimate of total amount of 750,000 to 1,100,000 portraits done.


The technical quality of Dutch artists was generally very high, mostly due to training by apprenticeship in small workshops. Traditional guilds controlled both selling and training, which were gradually replaced by academies. Dutch Masters skill in depiction of light was influenced by Italian painting, notably that of Caravaggio. Portraits were more sombre than aristocratic Baroque equivalent in the rest of the 17-th century Europe. Full length, standing pose and use of props, possessions or views of the land in the background were avoided as showing the sin of pride. Artist would draw and paint the face in in an initial sitting, and the clothes would be left at the studio and might as well be painted by assistants or a specialist master at later sittings.


Genre scenes show figures with no specific identity, they are not historical paintings, nor portraits. It is a distinctive feature of Dutch painting of this period, and Vermeer’s “Milkmaid” is a good example. It could be one person or a group on social occasion, scenes from daily lives, women at work about the house, etc. They are not accurate depictions of life though, as many illustrated proverbs or a moralistic message. Vermeer, long a very obscure figure is now considered the most regarded genre painter of all.


In still life colours are often muted, with browns dominating, especially in the middle of the century. The Dutch also led the world in botanical and other scientific drawings, prints and book illustrations. Such was the success of Dutch Golden Age painting, that it overpowered next generations, and there is no famous painters until van Gogh. The down to earth realism is connected to later 18th century French Enlightenment rationalism and realism in 19-th century painting and use of object for narrative purposes.

Having said all that I settled for my favourite – Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Technically speaking it is a tronie, meaning it’s not a portrait of a recognisable person, as there is no identification of a sitter. A tronie would denote the characteristics of a particular type of face, concentrate on facial expression or on an exotic costume like in this case. It is a form of genre painting in a portrait format, a bit like stock picture of the day. It was typically sold on the art market, and was not retained by the sitter as portraits normally were. Similar unidentified figures treated as history paintings would normally be given a title from the classical world.


My initial idea was to replicate the painting as a photograph, as close to the original as possible, to study the light and pose. I think there is a lot to learn photographically by doing that. Than I would add modern day accessories like headphones or mobile phone to make it into an interpretation as per task requirements.


Reference: Wikipedia, links in the body of text.

Assignment criteria: 1, 3 (although in this case it refers more to painting than photography)


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