I am fascinated by portraiture for many reasons. A portrait is a visual reflection of a person. A good portrait always reaches beyond the visible and tells us more than we can behold at first glance. It reveals much about the ambitions, social status, and character of an individual.
As observers of portraits, we should be careful, however. As in no other form of art, the sitter can make a defining impact on the artist’s work. We rarely ever know the extent to which a gesture on a portrait was determined by the sitter or left to the artist. But we do know that the interaction exists and is critical to the outcome of the portrait.
The people on portraits are important, but objects and backgrounds matter as well. Columns, flags, lights and shadows, flowers, or particular clothing are hardly ever simple decoration: they are clues to help us read the portrait and to understand how the person on the portrait wants to be seen or remembered. That is not only the case with official portraits of politicians or celebrities, but also with casual, everyday portraits of you and me.
Art movements and styles have an influence on portraiture, but in a very different way than on other types of art, such as on still life or landscape painting. Intriguingly, some art periods—abstract art, for instance—are neglected or almost absent in portraiture. When looking at a portrait, I always try to relate it to the art movements of its time. That is sometimes a starting point for scintillating thoughts.
All of the above makes the Portrait Gallery, which is devoted to exhibiting images of individuals who have made significant contributions to the history, development and culture of the people of the United States, a particularly interesting and important institution. Who is worth being portrayed? What exactly makes a contribution significant? The portraits of the past are a selection guided by social and cultural limitations of which people are often unaware. They are physical witnesses of social, racial, and gender distinctions and invite us to reflect on the status and evolution of society.
Oil on canvas was and still is an expensive form of portraiture, accessible only to the wealthy. Photography popularized portraiture by making it available to everybody. A family photo album is a portrait gallery, too. I am captivated by the new genres that make their way to the NPG, from videos to three-dimensional body scans. The selfie is perhaps the ultimate form of portraiture since it conflates the roles of the artist and the sitter. There is no longer a need to ponder the artist-sitter relationship or artistic integrity. Going forward, the Portrait Gallery might well embark on big data technology to keep responding to its mandate in innovative ways.
Martin Dahinden has been Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States of America since 2014. A culture enthusiast and an avid painter himself, he is the founding chair of the National Portrait Gallery’s Diplomatic Cabinet. Together with his wife, Anita, he was also co-chair of the second biennial American Portrait Gala in November 2017.