One of art history's standard lines is that in the days before photography, the crucial function of a painted portrait was simply to record what someone looked like, for their peers and for posterity.
It's a line I've always more or less bought, though I knew it oversimplified the issue. Now, however, I think that it may simply be wrong. I've recently concluded that, as often as not, it wasn't the face itself that mattered in a portrait. It was the impressive artistic act of painting it. The face didn't have to be real; it just had to be so convincingly painted that it felt real. Commemoration was sometimes just an incidental outcome of an artist's showing off.
This thorough rejiggering of my thoughts came after two days spent with "The Spanish Portrait from El Greco to Picasso," a major show recently launched by the Prado Museum. With this portrait survey, the Prado is hoping to make its first big splash on the international exhibition circuit. Under controversial new management, an institution famous only for its breathtaking permanent collection is being recast as a purveyor of world-class art events, worthy of attention everywhere. Things seem to be on track: "The Spanish Portrait" is, incredibly, the planet's first significant overview of one of the richest, most important and most coherent traditions in Western art.
Since art in Spain was fairly isolated from what was going on elsewhere, the most important inspiration for the country's artists was the art of the Spanish masters who had come before. And since El Greco, Velazquez and Goya, three giants of Spanish and world art, were also major portraitists -- were arguably at their very best in their portraits -- portraiture had a more impressive pedigree in Spain than almost anywhere else. In the 84 important Spanish portraits on show in this exhibition, taken from the Prado's own collection and borrowed from abroad, the museum is offering a rare look at how a single artistic culture dealt with the recording of the human face.
Toward the start of the show, which is mostly hung in chronological order, recognizable faces show up in two so-called donor portraits, finished by Pedro de Campaña in 1556. In the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the action shown in a religious painting -- in a Crucifixion, a saintly miracle or a heavenly set piece -- would often have a peanut gallery of secular figures looking on from the sidelines. By having themselves included on the edges of the holy scene, a picture's patrons could assert their elevated status, as well as their special access to the magic moment that the picture represents.
In the case of Pedro's two portrait groupings, curators have removed the pictures from their usual place on either side of an altarpiece in Seville's cathedral. Isolated from the holy scene they were meant to flank, the portraits are perfect precursors to all the other family groups portrayed later in the Prado show. Though the function of these donors' portraits may be different from a picture of a prospective royal spouse, or a portrait of a newly crowned monarch, or a record of a saintly missionary, they look pretty much like any of these other convincing portrayals of particular human beings.
This "particularity," the way a portrait seems to pick out one particular example of humanity from among all others, is at the very heart of Spanish portraiture. There is, I think, a fundamental interest in portraiture -- in the simple fact of capturing a single human face in paint -- that transcends the particular use to which a portrait might be put. In the Prado show, functions that seem entirely different produce portraits that look strikingly alike.
The interest in particularity is on show again in a "Hezekiah" painted about 1490 by Pedro Berruguete. Despite its Old Testament subject (Hezekiah was a reforming king of Judah) and old-fashioned churchy treatment (the figure is surrounded by an elaborately tooled gold ground), the picture gets included in this portrait exhibition because of how particular, how portraitlike, it looks. Staring at this middle-aged Hezekiah, with his strange ears, weak eyes, wrinkled brow, hairy mole and incipient double chin, you're sure that he's been modeled on some particular living man, and not on a generic idea of how aging men tend to look.
But if there's one thing this exhibition teaches, it's that a portrait can seem to commemorate a particular person even when that can't have been its goal. Viewers didn't really think Berruguete had caught the features of a long-dead Jewish king. They just demanded pictures that could make it seem as though he had. They demanded pictures that worked in a snapshot mode, regardless of whether there was some real subject to be captured for posterity.