People-Watching in Museums: On Portraits and Identity

Whenever I visit a museum, I always gravitate toward portraits in the collection. I am intrigued by who they were in life, and their individual stories. These were real people, and their portraits help bring history and art to life in a personal way. This might be particularly relevant now, as we live in an incredibly image-rich culture. In particular, we are inundated constantly with images of people: more people have access to image-making and recording than ever before, and social media and celebrity culture mean that we take in images of other people on a daily basis.

Visit any museum with an encyclopedic collection, and you will be sure to find portraits from different time periods and all over the world. European and American paintings might be particularly familiar to you, where the idea of the individual emerging in the Renaissance and beyond spurred people to have their images recorded, or you might gravitate toward the arts of antiquity, where Egyptian pharaohs and Roman emperors commissioned sculptures in their image. And although contemporary art encompasses wildly diverse works and artistic practices, portraiture continues to have a role. (A current exhibition at the Whitney in New York, focuses on the many ways artists engaged with and challenged portraiture from the early 20th century to the present day.)

What do we expect of a portrait?

Historically, each period has its own conventions associated with portraiture, such as format, pose, and accompanying imagery, the combinations of which help the viewer then and now to “read” the image. Which is not to say that it is so straightforward; scholars continually reevaluate interpretations of works of art. If a work of art only had one meaning, where’s the fun in that?

In the Western tradition, it is generally expected that portraits attempt to convey the likeness of a person, such that someone would recognize them in life, and also offer insight into their personality. I think it is fascinating to think about how an artist communicates an individual’s identity, taking a flesh-and-blood person and trying to translate not only their physical likeness but something of their character into visual terms. Philosopher and professor Cynthia Freeland calls this something a person’s “essence;” similarly, for Leonardo da Vinci, it was important for portraits to suggest the sitter’s “motions of the mind,” or their inner thoughts.

Balanced with that impulse to suggest likeness and character however, is the agenda of the patron, the artist, or both. Historically, and especially before photography, portraiture was often reserved for the elite and the notable – royals, nobles, thinkers, statesmen, etc. These patrons commissioned their images to emphasize their power, wealth, intellect, and taste, and to ensure that the memory of them would be preserved for posterity. Of course, they wanted to look their best, and be flattered by the image. For example, when Isabella d’Este, a Renaissance noblewoman, commissioned a portrait from Titian, she was displeased when she saw that he had painted her as an older woman (she was in her 60s) and insisted that he repaint her instead as a woman in her 20s. Whether or not the sitter actually posed for the portrait, the image is an artist’s interpretation of a person, even for photographs. In the case of artists’ self-portraits, artist and sitter are one and the same, and they choose how they present themselves to us. Rembrandt painted himself over and over again during his long career (40-50 times, based on extant paintings), often in different poses and guises.


Titian, Isabella d’Este, c. 1534-36. Oil on canvas. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

So what happens when we confront a portrait in a museum gallery?

Does everything I just wrote about the conventions and history of portraiture matter standing in front of an image?

Yes and no.

Yes, because a portrait belongs to a particular time and place, created by an artist of a specific person, and ideally we know who both the artist and subject are. That all matters to understanding the image and its context as a work of art. But it is also equally important to take time to leave out art history, and just focus on looking. By focusing your attention and asking questions of the art, you can learn a lot about the work.

Here is just one example: Diego Velazquez, Juan de Pareja, 1650. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1971.86. 

Diego Velazquez, Juan de Pareja (1606-1670), 1650. Oil on canvas, 32 x 27 1/2 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1971.86.

This is a portrait of a man. There does not seem to be any particular setting; no symbols to suggest who he is. On its face, a simple composition. He stands holding one arm across his body, and gazes out at the viewer. The dark olive green fabric of his clothes nearly blend in with the grey green background. By contrast, the his skin is painted in warm brown and orange tones, framed by a stark white lace collar and black curly hair. The strong light falling across the painting draws our attention to his face, highlighting his dark eyes looking out into our space.

Considering these details, we might read something proud and dignified in his stance, in the way he holds his shoulders. He is well-dressed. His gaze seems especially arresting, with a force of character behind it. We might take in his skin tone and realize he is a man of color. Who do we think he is?

Here is where scholarship comes in. Velazquez was one of the most famous artists of the 17th century in Europe, and one of the most famous artists of all time. As an artist attached to the Spanish royal court, he painted many portraits of the royal family and nobility, such as Las Meninas in the Prado.

But this man is neither royal nor noble. Juan de Pareja was of Moorish (a no-longer-used historic term for Muslim, North African inhabitants of Spain during the Middle Ages) and Spanish descent, making him a multiracial individual in 17th-century Spain. He was a slave, and evidently inherited by Velazquez, who put him to work in his studio doing tasks such as grinding colors and stretching canvases. Not much is known about his early life, but he accompanied Velazquez on a trip to Italy in 1649, and it was in Rome that this portrait was painted.

Rome at the time was the center of the art world. As the home of the Catholic Church and the storied capital of the Roman Empire, Rome was where many artists traveled to study the art of antiquity and Renaissance masters, and to seek patronage. Velazquez was already well-established in Spain, and in Rome he joined a prestigious organization of artists soon after he arrived. His membership allowed him to exhibit work publicly in their annual exhibition at the Pantheon.

Velazquez painted the portrait of Juan de Pareja and chose it for his public artistic debut. The portrait would have hung alongside paintings by the best artists in Rome, and the Pantheon was certainly an impressive venue to make an entrance.

The Pantheon, Rome. Source: Wikimedia.

That Velazquez chose to submit a portrait of a man who was his slave and Afro-Hispanic was also remarkable. As previously stated, portraiture at the time was generally reserved for the elite and the exemplary, not the lower classes or slaves. But the portrait was met with great acclaim in Rome: an early biographer of Spanish artists recorded that “in the opinion of all the painters of the different nations everything else seemed like painting, but this alone like truth.”

Velazquez painted Juan de Pareja with great naturalism and vitality, but also with dignity. Pareja is dressed as a gentleman, not wearing the clothes he would have worn working in an artist’s studio. In the same year that the portrait was painted, Velazquez signed documents to free Pareja in four years. He remained in his former master’s studio after gaining his freedom, and went on to have his own independent painting career. Though few of his paintings survive today, he was known as a skilled artist himself.

By balancing art historical information with the knowledge gained by looking, we gain a much richer appreciation of the painting as both a portrait by Velazquez and Juan de Pareja as the man portrayed. Painting a portrait, especially one as powerful as this one, requires engagement between artist and sitter, and I think that comes across here. By taking time to really look at portraits like Juan de Pareja, one can bring out all of these interesting stories about who they are in the painting and their lives beyond the image that comes down to us.

So the next time you visit a museum, if you find a portrait that draws you in, spend some time with it. Ignore the label at first. Have a conversation.

Happy people-watching!


Cover Image: Gallery view of the National Portrait Gallery, London. Source: Wikimedia.


One comment on “People-Watching in Museums: On Portraits and Identity

What do you think about this?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.