Portrait Theory: The Psychological Portrait

Edward Steichen‘s 1903 photogravue of tycoon J.P. Morgan is frequently cited as a prime example of the psychological portrait, one that shows the inner man.  It is one of Steichen’s most celebrated works.  The fierce expression, stiff posture and highlight on the chair arm looks at first glance like a  trench knife is thought by many critics to catch Morgan revealing himself as a sociopathic business man.  But is that the case?
I’ve been meaning for some time work through the general assertion that great portraits should all be a deep psychological study that reveals the soul or some deep inner truth about the subject.  This came to a head for me when my wife, Susan, read to me that John Updike, and others, criticized portraits by John Singer Seargent for “not being deep enough”.  Irving Penn‘s portraits get a similar note, being called cool and distant.  What on earth could that mean?
In response to the idea of the phsychological portrait, I developed a thesis, which I found is not new or unique to my thinking, that a portrait cannot capture anything like the heart and soul of the subject.  In fact, I think the concept of the phychological portrait is fatuous.

My Exhibit A is this mug shot of actor Nick Nolte.  It has all the elements we associate with a psychological portrait.  We can see a man in apparent crisis, caught in a vulnerable moment, all pretense dropped.  There is a defiant resignation in his stare.  Would Sargent have painted a picture like this?  Highly unlikely.  Was the photographer seeking to capture the inner man?  Well, it is a mug shot, not a sitting for Vanity Fair.

Looking at examples critics hail as psychological portraits, they all seem to have these characteristics in common:

  • The picture is not flattering.  J.P. Morgan rejected his portrait.
  • The sitter must look fierce, uncomfortable, drunk, vulnerable and/or lecherous.
  • The more severe the “hatchet job” is on the sitter, the more celebrated the picture is as being “deep”

I really think any powerful portrait reveals more about the artist and viewer than it does the subject.  Penn and Sargent don’t enter the sitter’s world – they pull the subjects into theirs, without apology.

I’ll close with a quote by one of my favorite portrait photographers:

“I am convinced that any photographic attempt to show the complete man is nonsense. We can only show, as best we can, what the outer man reveals. The inner man is seldom revealed to anyone, sometimes not even the man himself.” – Arnold Newman

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3 thoughts on “Portrait Theory: The Psychological Portrait

  1. I’m working on a portrait painting but stuck on this very point…the psychology behind the portrait. I believe that the portrait says more about me, the artist, than the woman, the sitter.

  2. Pingback: The Psychological Portrait | Lara ElSergany

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