Seeing The Whole


“You can’t draw a head until you see it whole. It’s not easy. Try it. When I first realized this it seemed that I had to stretch my brain in order to get it around a whole head. It seemed that I could go so far, but it was a feat to comprehend the whole. No use trying to draw a thing until you have got all around it. It is only then that you comprehend a unity of which the parts can be treated as parts.” (Henri, The Art Spirit,p.107) As Henri states, it is difficult to comprehend the whole head- its form as well as its expression- to see it all at once and not a summation of various parts.  The gesture of the head and its whole attitude hinges on one’s ability to comprehend the head in its entirety and is imperative to an accurate rendering of the individual. There are many portraits that achieve a likeness but very few that capture the spirit of the living being, a freedom of spirit expressed in the very rendering itself.

The rendered head is a double mirror. It contains the character of the sitter, their spiritual makeup in all its complexity, as well as the idea of the artist’s attitude toward humanity. In a sense it becomes a reflection of two spirits- sitter and artist. The sitter presents themselves but the artist presents their own perception not only of the individual that is before them but also of their very personal attitude toward humanity itself. As I said in my last blog, one does not only paint nature but also that which is contained within the soul of the artist-In the act of rendering nature, the artist cannot separate themselves from the creative act.

This duality becomes more complex when we reflect on the ideas of someone like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He believed that every individual is split down the middle- that we all contain within ourselves that division that is within all of humanity as well as nature. We are all divided and capable of the greatest good as well as the greatest evil. (Solzhenitsyn, A World Split Apart– Nobel Prize Lecture) This idea has been further expressed by Herman Melville’s Ahab- his scar running through his face and his entire body- he is literally split down the middle. This knowledge adds to the inherent complexity of rendering an individual. A portrait now becomes a meeting place of two dualities. A formidable task to say the least.

When I reflect on this, I often think of Gericault’s portraits of the insane. He not only depicts their outward character but also the division that lies within them and in a sense, has caused the fracture of their mental state. Gericault also reveals to us his intense love for humanity and the connection he feels to these broken individuals. He gives us an intimate portrait of the insane in all their fragility but also his own comprehension that he himself has the possibility of falling victim to this division as well. These insane individuals exist within each of us- they are the unconscious part of our own being.

Today, commercial portraits present the flawless individual. There is little acceptance in the contemporary sitter of their weaknesses. Whereas in the past, people accepted to a certain degree the knowledge of their own frailty- of our unity with the rest of humanity. Portraits were a place to reckon with ourselves- think Velazquez and Hals- there was always room for self-reflection both for the artist and the sitter. In a sense it was the  moral responsibility of the artist to reveal in a physical way what he intuited in the individual.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

0 thoughts on “Seeing The Whole”

  1. Yes this is so true Judith. Some artists seem to view their subjects as specimens and view them without without humanity. I love what you say about Gericault and his feelings of humanity. You also make me think about what the value of a portrait is for me an idealized flawless rendering or one that gave me some insight about as you say what the artist intuited about the sitter. Without hesitation I would choose the latter provided the artist did not view the sitter as a specimen but was a sympathetic soul. Especially if the portrait was of me. What a powerful visage on the portrait on this post. The directness of the paint handling seems integral to the subjects expression. So well done. Wonderful color design wonderful design altogether.

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