Relationship Between Paintings and Portrait Photographs

In previous posts ‘Shape of Paintings and Photographs‘ and ‘Early Photographic Portraits‘ we looked at how the camera obscura helped some artists create accurate and realistic paintings. These are early examples of how paintings and photography related.

It wasn’t until 1839 when William Henry Fox Talbot and Louis-Jacque-Mande Daguerre invented ways to permanently fix an image that tensions formed between the two art forms.

Initially photographs were made to look like paintings, with the subject staged, usually in poses similar to painted portraits and sometimes even displayed in elaborate frames.

(Left) Théodore Chassériau, The Two Sisters, c. 1845, oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris. (Right) Anonymous, Portrait of Twin Sisters, c. 1848, coloured daguerreotype, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

The painted portrait though couldn’t compete against the low cost and speed of the photograph. Critics at the time suggested that it was the end for paintings. Paul Delaroche is reported to have said “From today painting is dead!” on seeing a Daguerretype for the first time. Certainly artists that had made their living by painting portraits were to find life much tougher.

Painters began to rebel against the realism of photography and in the 1870s and 80s tried to capture the essence or feelings of a moment in a movement that has been labelled impressionism. Named satirically by a critic after Claude Monet’s Impression, Soleil Levant.

Impression, soleil levant, Claude Monet, 1872

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries painters further distanced themselves from photography during what is known as the expressionist period. Here colour and form are exaggerated to explore the emotion and responses that objects and events arouse.

Edvard Munch, The Scream (1883)

Edvard Munch is among the most influential painters of this movement.

Munch tells of how his painting, The Scream, came to be: “I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.”

From this quote you can understand how the painter has tried to capture not only the detail of that moment, but the emotion of it. In fact, I think that a photograph would struggle to recreate the same sense of panic and despair.

Similarly Fauvism, which came to prominence between about 1905 and 1908, used exaggerated or deliberately altered colours. Henri Matisse is perhaps the best well known artist of this period.

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907

Around 1907 Pablo Picasso began to do something that photographers hadn’t thought to do. He rejected the idea of a single viewpoint and instead dissected 3D objects and painted them from different viewpoints at the same time.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso is widely accepted as being influential in beginning the cubism movement. Three of the women in the painting have recognisable facial features but the other two have African masks on their faces highlighting another feature of cubism which drew on outside influences from around the world.

At the time, this was a very criticised painting but many of the painters that criticised it were later influenced by it and went on to firmly establish cubism in the art world.

It was not until the 1980s that David Hockey translated cubism into photography by creating a series of cubist style photo montages.

Mother Hockney, David Hockney

L.H.O.O.Q. by Marcel Duchamp (1919)

At a time when photography was becoming more accessible so did an artistic movement called Dada. It came about because artists in Europe were frustrated by the atrocities of the First World War and wanted to shock the public in to responding.

It was a form of art that was anarchic, absurd, irreverent and unpredictable. Even the name Dada came from a French poet that stuck a penknife into the pages of a dictionary in order to find a random word that could be used.

Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. is a classic example of Dada. A cheap copy of the Mona Lisa has been adorned with facial hair and the letters L.H.O.O.Q. which when read out in French and roughly translated means ‘there is fire below’. It is part of a collection of ‘Readymades’ where he challenged what art was by collecting ordinary, everyday items and displaying them as art. These pieces of art have since been photographed and the some of those photographs have become art in their own right.

[Jacqueline Goddard], 1930 Man Ray (American, 1890–1976) Gelatin silver print; 11 1/2 x 8 7/8 in. (29.2 x 22.5 cm)
Surrealism in the 1920s quickly followed Dada, this was based more on imagination and what might be revealed in dreams, chance, intoxication and madness. It was heavily influenced by Dada but was lighter and more humorous, drawing heavily on new philosophies from Freud and others.

Man Ray was a well know painter at the time but he was perhaps better known for his photography. Using techniques like double exposure, combination printing, montage, solarisation, rotation and distortion photographers were able to create a feeling of being somewhere between dream and reality.

In this photograph Man Ray has captured one of his favourite models Jacqueline Goddard and in the processing has turned white to black and created glowing shadows. He has also turned the image 90 degrees to give a slightly disorienting feel to it.

Clyfford Still, 1957-D No. 1, 1957, oil on canvas, 113 x 159 in

Abstract Expressionism was the next art movement, beginning in the 1940s and developing through the 1950s. Artists and photographers wanted to be taken seriously again. This period is noted for its large canvases and a celebration of the act of painting. It was the process of making art that was important and not necessarily the final outcome.

Jackson Pollock and Clifford Still are noted painters of this period.

Photographers tended to concentrate on the details of architecture and nature, focusing on patterns and shadows and taking inspiration from painters which, in turn, inspired some painters at the time.

Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol.

Moving into the 1950s and 60s, a fascination with fashion, celebrity and the manufacturing and media following WWII created the pop art culture. Like Dadaism it used everyday objects to poke fun at the established art world trying to blur the lines between high art and low culture. Artist Richard Hamilton described it as “popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, and Big Business”.

Many artists in this era began work in the commercial sector. Andy Warhol began his career as a graphic designer before his screen prints of coke bottles, Campbells soup tins and celebrities became iconic.

Warhol used a variety of media in his work but using photography as a source (not just an influence) for his art was new and a bit shocking but it is a trend that continues today. When Francis Bacon’s studio was cleared after his death in 1992, several replicas of Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs were found. They were taken in the 1870s, yet Bacon used them as the basis for key main elements in his paintings.

L: Bacon’s “Two Figures” R: Muybridge reproductions found in Bacon’s studio.

Through the 1950s and 60s both painting and photography were no longer dominant art forms, they had to compete with the rise in television and film. Today they also have to compete with the Internet and social media. The proliferation of smart phones and tablets mean that everyone is a photographer.