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By Cynthia Freeland


The Montréal Review, November 2011


 "Portraits and Persons" by Cynthia Freeland (Oxford University Press, 2010)


"In Portraits and Persons, one of our leading philosophers of art illuminates the fascinating and fundamental questions posed by this enduring art form. Cynthia Freeland's discussion is remarkably free-wheeling... Featuring more than fifty halftones, this is an exhilarating philosophical exploration of portraiture that highlights its important contribution to the complex evolving discourse about human nature."

-- Oxford University Press


As a philosopher I ask different questions about portraits than art historians. I am interested in how portraiture helps illuminate questions about persons and selves. The first fundamental question my book tackles is how to define the term "portrait". I ask what things can have or be featured in portraits. It seems at the very least that portraits require consciousness. This is reason to rule out portraits of things sometimes said to have them such as houses, flowers, plants, and trees. Similarly, I rule out portraits of fictional people like Sherlock Holmes. There are more or less convincing depictions of such imaginary beings, but I do not consider them portraits.

I propose that a portrait is a representation of an actual living being as a unique individual possessing (1) a recognizable physical body and (2) an inner life, i.e., some sort of psychological or mental states. This initial definition prompts me to consider whether there can be animal portraiture. Pet portrait artists advertise frequently on the Internet, and we all no doubt regard our own pets as unique and expressive beings. Not all animal images in art are kitschy. Animals have been portrayed by great artists, as in George Stubbs' dramatic life-sized portrait of the champion horse Whistlejacket. Dogs also make frequent appearances both in art history and today, in works by artists like photographer William Wegman and painter David Hockney.

George Stubbs' Whistlejacket

Animals can meet my first two conditions for portraits, physical uniqueness and the expression of internal states. But I regard portraiture of humans as unique, because it involves the conscious presentation of one's self to an artist. While self-concepts are probably present in some animals (dolphins, chimpanzees, and perhaps elephants), it is implausible to impute even to these the ability to recognize the general aims of portraiture. So I propose a third criterion for portraiture, (3) self-presentation, which can be called for short "posing." People 'put on' an identity before the artist, and artists in turn try to reconcile that self-presentation with their own vision of the person being depicted. Social self-representation in humans varies with age and mental condition, but the ability to pose for pictures develops quite early in children. Psychologists like Michael Tomasello point to the first birthday as a critical point in this process of developing social awareness. As J. David Velleman argued in his 2006 book Self to Self, we all have a public self. Though this might suggest we assume a persona that is a mask, I endorse Velleman's view that the public self simply is the self-something each person develops as a part of configuring who he or she really is.

My book next asks how portraits can ever capture the complexity of persons. I see this as a variant on the venerable mind-body problem: How can something made of material, a sculpture, painting, or photo, convey the evanescent nature of a living person? To answer this question, I turn to various recent accounts of the self, drawing in particular upon Jerrold Seigel's 2005 book The Idea of the Self. Seigel there describes three pre-eminent notions of self in modern European thought: the bodily or material self, the reflective self, and the relational self.

The bodily self shows up in many aspects of portraits that depict features such as a person's status, clothing, pose, and ethnicity. We can readily detect the differential status of Gainsborough's aristocrats and Géricault's asylum inmates. John Singer Sargent posed the famed beauty Madame Pierre Gautreau in a striking yet awkwardly twisted stance for what became his scandalous Portrait of Madame X. Stereotypes about race and ethnicity have been employed by artists to diverse ends. Edward S. Curtis sought to show the nobility of Native Americans in his immense photographic study cataloging individuals and tribes. By contrast, Fiona Tan's video installations question the assumption that people display outwardly visible ethnic markers. Her 2005 work Tomorrow pans slowly around a circle of teenagers in Sweden, undermining the stereotype of the Swede as a blond blue-eyed giant.

John Singer Sargent's "Portrait of Madame X"

Artists also show the reflective self. Emotional expression is so crucial that there have been manuals on this topic, dating at least back to Charles Le Brun, the founding teacher in the French Academy of Painting. In a modern variant of Le Brun's project Bill Viola employs multiple large-scale video displays to present The Passions (2003). In pieces of various sizes and compositions he explores human displays of emotions, shown in slow-motion crystalline clarity. Viola works by directing actors in schematic situations to recreate emotional experiences, sometimes recalling Biblical stories, as for example in the work titled Man of Sorrows.

When depicting the relational self, artists use spatial arrangements to show people's interactions and levels of dependence or autonomy. David Hockney interrogated his parents' marriage in his My Parents (1977), where they appear emotionally and physically distant both from each other and from the artist. Conversely, Mary Cassatt conveyed the loving intimacy of the mother/infant bond with images like Young Woman Carrying a Nude Baby (1890) by almost literally blending the pair's profiles and skins.

David Hockney's "My Parents"

One currently popular theory of the self is the narrative account according to which persons constitute themselves by acts of a complex ongoing autobiography. I put this account to the test in relation to the lifelong projects of self-portraiture of some artists including Rembrandt, Cézanne, and Frida Kahlo. I do not find the narrative account plausible because, among other things, it omits too much about the embodied nature of persons. Kahlo excelled at highlighting this aspect, at times by metaphorically rendering her physical debilities, and also by creating visible versions of her conflicted allegiance to diverse ethnic heritages.

There is a lingering idea that the best portraits capture a person's "true" self. Philosophers may resist this notion, but I find it intriguing. A version of it was advanced by Roland Barthes in his poignant 1981 book Camera Lucida. There he described searching for the truth of this beloved dead mother while perusing the pages of a photograph album. Suddenly he discovered 'the real her' in an image showing his mother a young girl. This one picture captured what Barthes describes as her 'air'. A person's 'air' is unanalyzable, but Barthes speculates that "Perhaps the air is ultimately something moral, mysteriously contributing to the face the reflection of a life value."

I like Barthes' idea of equating the air or "true self" with a person's moral character. It seems to me the greatest portraits interest us because they reveal a person's character in a very deep sense. Thus Velázquez's well-known portrait of Pope Innocent X confronts us with a man who is powerful and intelligent but also arrogant and ruthless. In comparison, although Lucian Freud's recent portrait of Queen Elizabeth II is characteristically unflattering, it does not show her as having anything like Pope Innocent's cruelty. Rather, he presents us with someone whose life events have led to a slightly pugnacious strength and determination.

Velázquez's portrait of Pope Innocent X

Lucian Freud's portrait of Queen Elizabeth II

When researching my book I was struck to find that philosophers had written hardly anything about portraiture. They have looked more to novels and biographies than to works of visual art in studying how human beings have been defined. Marcel Duchamp once commented on the invidious comparison often drawn between writers and painters. He said, "The painter was considered stupid, but the poet and writer were intelligent. I wanted to be intelligent." I hope to provoke other philosophers, as well as general readers, into taking the realm of the visual more seriously-into regarding visual artists as "intelligent."


Cynthia Freeland is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Houston, Texas. She has published widely on topics in the philosophy of art and film, including But is It Art?


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