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"And Time Will Have His Fancy ..." On being moved by portraits of unknown people

Maes, Hans R.V. (2021) "And Time Will Have His Fancy ..." On being moved by portraits of unknown people. In: Portraits and Philosophy. Routledge. E-ISBN 978-0-429-19937-0. (doi:10.4324/9780429199370-13) (KAR id:97780)


A great portrait will reveal a person’s unique essence or inner character. This is one of the most commonly held views about (the value of) portraiture. But it is not without problems. It seems we can deeply admire certain portraits, even if we don’t know anything about the sitter and so are not in a position to assess the portrayal’s accuracy. If we have no independent information about the life, thoughts, or feelings of the depicted person, how can we be sure that the portrait is not grossly misleading the viewer instead of revealing the person’s true inner self? This puzzle is the starting point for my paper, which will focus on a group of Renaissance portraits of unknown people that I have found particularly mesmerizing and moving. These works by, among others, Hans Holbein the Younger, Giorgione, and Jan van Scorel, share a number of features: they are head-and-shoulders portraits, painted in a naturalistic style, with a neutral background, depicting an earnestly looking but now entirely forgotten person looking straight at the viewer. In Section 1, I discuss how these portraits create problems for various versions of the standard view mentioned above. Authors discussed include G.W.F. Hegel, E.H. Gombrich, and Cynthia Freeland. In Section 2, I examine an alternative to the standard view, proposed by art historians such as Tarnya Cooper and Fredrika Jacobs. The idea, in a nutshell, is that the best portraits, rather than capturing a person’s essence, recreate a sense of the sitter’s physical presence at a moment in time. I argue that this view, too, cannot adequately explain the emotional impact of the Renaissance portraits of anonymous individuals. In Section 3, I provide a more rounded explanation of what makes said portraits so moving and memorable, thereby relying on Barthes’ notion of ‘punctum’, James Elkins’ account of why people cry in front of paintings, and a phenomenological exploration of the parallel between portraiture and the tradition of the Vanitas painting.

Item Type: Book section
DOI/Identification number: 10.4324/9780429199370-13
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BH Aesthetics
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of Arts
Depositing User: Hans Maes
Date Deposited: 03 Nov 2022 18:46 UTC
Last Modified: 04 Nov 2022 10:50 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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