In E H Shepard‘s cartoon, three models stand in front of their portraits supposedly to brighten up the exhibition. Shepard pokes fun at them – the rather flushed businessman appears to have acquired a few extra pounds and lost much of his self assurance since his portrait was painted. The Society Lady’s looks and demeanour fall short of the magnificent glamour of her painting and the retired general sags a mournful moustache like an ageing vicar – a far cry from the fine soldierly figure behind him.
Portraits are rarely warts-and-all likenesses. They are usually crafted to place the sitter in a favourable light. People like to appear at their best: handsome, beautiful, youthful, elegant, successful, charming, attractive, decisive, sensitive, lively, perhaps even modest…the list of adjectives is endless. To capture the sitter’s appearance is the primary aim of the artist but to capture character is what the artist should really strive for. It appears to me that artists manage this best when they discern one overriding aspect of a person’s character and are able to show this. For example, an engaging person can look charming in his portrait, yet his quiet gentleness may not be quite so apparent. Thus an artist can be quite truthful, but as Shepard suggests, on occasion only partially so.