Sunday, June 28, 2015

Georgian Photoshop? One Princess, Two Portraits, and a Mystery

Sunday, June 28, 2015
Isabella reporting,

Today we're accustomed to celebrities carefully crafting their public image with a hefty dose of Photoshop. Whether on Instagram or a magazine cover, what the public sees is seldom reality.

In the days before photography, portrait painters performed much the same service. A successful portraitist was one who flattered the sitter to conform with the contemporary sense of beauty, smoothing out the complexion, narrowing the waist, adding grace or gravity where perhaps there was none.

The portraits of royalty are especially prone to "improvement," for these are not just powerful (and vain) people, but people who embodied the country they ruled. There's often a stunning disconnect between how a king or prince was portrayed in official portraits, and how he appeared in popular caricatures or was described by contemporaries. Just compare the official portraits of the George IV (more usually remembered as the Prince Regent) by Thomas Lawrence with the cruelly satiric drawings by James Gillray.

Most discrepancies in portraits can be attributed to different portraitists; every artist sees a face differently. But the two portraits shown here of HRH Princess Caroline Elizabeth (1713-1757), daughter of George II and Caroline of Ansbach, were painted by the same artist, Jacopo Amigoni (1682-1752.) Both portraits were painted in the early 1730s, when the princess was a young woman, and when Amigoni painted several portraits of the royal family. Both portraits show the princess wearing the same clothes, and sitting in much the same pose.

And yet the portraits are markedly different. The presumably earlier portrait, above left, shows the princess with a strong resemblance to other members of the Hanover royal family, with heavy-lidded eyes, small, full mouth, and a softness beneath her chin. The other portrait, right, shows a much more refined version of the princess's face. Her eyes and mouth are wider, and her chin as been firmed. She's overall more graceful and more appealing (at least to modern eyes.)

The changes are subtle, but different enough to have been intentional. An engraving made for popular distribution (lower left) appears to be almost a composite of the two paintings: there's the coronet on the table from the first painting, but the face seems to have more of the elegance of the second, and the hands are the same, too.

So what is the story behind the two portraits? I must confess that I do not know. If the royal family was unhappy with the first painting, then it would have been reworked or destroyed, so it's unlikely that the second painting was created with directions to "improve" the lady's face. Was Amigoni making a copy of the first painting (a common practice) for a patron outside of the family who wished her to be more of a beauty?

Or was it Amigoni himself who couldn't resist altering the lady's face, or perhaps his own skills evolved? Before coming to England, he had been known primarily for his religious scenes and large-scale decorative paintings, and he switched to portraits to suit the English market; the second painting does seem to have more of an artistic assurance and sophistication that is lacking in the first. There's also a chance that the more flattering portrait doesn't even show the princess, but is the portrait of another noble lady entirely, who requested that she be painted in the same pose (which would explain the absence of the coronet.)

If anyone out there has another theory, or knows for certain, I'd love to hear your explanation. Ahh, the mysteries of the past!

Many thanks to Lucinda Brant for the inspiration for this post. 

Above left: Portrait of Caroline Elizabeth, by Jacopo Amigoni, c. 1730s. Most recently sold by Christie's auction house, now in a private collection.
Right: Princess Caroline Elizabeth, after a portrait by Jacopo Amigoni, c. 1735. ©National Portrait Gallery, London.
Lower left: Princess Caroline Elizabeth, by Jacopo Amigoni, 1732. National Trust Collections, Ickworth, Suffolk.


Jacquilynne said...

Is there any chance the first two portraits are reversed here? The descriptions of them in the text seem backwards to the actual portraits.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Jacquilynne ~ Right you are! I've switched them around now. Thank you for cluing me in...:)

Lillian Marek said...

For her sake, I hope the poor girl looked more like the second portrait.

AuntieNan said...

Ah yes, they look so strange to our modern eyes, don't they! As to whether number two is or is not royalty, tho the coronet is missing, she is still wearing the ermine trimmed cloak, so probably, right?
Thanks for this entertaining post!
Nancy N

Amanda said...

I studied art under a portrait artist. He liked to warn us that when we took a commission, our job was to keep the customer happy, not to please ourselves. His favorite story on this topic was about one of his early commissions. He turned out a portrait of a woman he was well pleased with but the family hated. He listened to their complaints, took the painting back and re-did it. By the time he was done, the sitter looked nothing like what the artist saw, "I made her look like Greta Garbo" were his exact words, but the family were "so happy, they cried," and paid him more than the agreed-on fee. Artists are not photographers, they are interpreting what they see to the best of their ability. They are also making a living, and keeping their clients happy is a key component of their being able to stay in the art business, not only because clients often withhold payment until they are happy, but because happy clients can recommend them to other clients who will also pay well. If it takes giving a princess a face lift, then that's what you do.

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