Over the centuries, drawing a flattering likeness for a willing patron has been a means to an end for scores of artists. While it may seem far flung and much more romantic than the department store photo studio glamour shots we know today, it was bread and butter for many painters and not that far removed. For others it went much further than that and gave them a VIP pass to social circles reserved for the elite. If you were middle class and above, a personal or family portrait was a little luxury that was treasured long before the advent of the camera. The good news is, with such a rich history of paintings of this sort, there is plenty to choose from with a variety of subject matter and price points. To me, this makes for good collecting particularly if you don’t mind someone else’s ancestors peering down from the dining room wall. Who doesn’t want to have tea in the parlour with some chubby-faced rear admiral hanging proudly over the mantle? I maintain he would be much better company than some mass-produced piece of innocuous “decor” made for the masses with no taste.
So… what are the points to consider when looking for a great portrait? Here are some tips I adhere to when collecting.
First of all, it's important to keep an open mind to the condition of the picture. Similar to looking at real estate, what you are initially buying isn’t usually its full potential and a little TLC can enhance your investment into something you truly love. Sometimes, the objection you have to a picture isn’t the quality of the art… its just dirty. Most portraits are finished with a layer of varnish that may have yellowed with time and that can usually be refreshed fairly easily giving the colours new life.
Don’t forget many of these pictures were around when we all smoked indoors, and it was common to hang portraits over the mantle and the prolonged exposure to heat and soot may have added elements to a picture that can be rectified quickly just with cleaning.
Also, just because you are buying it in a particular frame doesn’t mean it has to stay. Frequently we find great frames with bad pictures in them and the opposite as well. So many people won’t see past that and great deals can be found as a result. So ask yourself if it’s the frame or the picture you really like.
Look at the Back
Almost in a tie for the most important consideration is turning the picture over and looking at the back. The back of a picture will give you so much information as to the validity of the dealers claims about a picture and start giving you a roadmap of the life the portrait has lead. Look for signatures, stamps from the canvas maker, and even old labels from dealers to tell you where your picture might have originated and how old it might truly be. Is the dealer claiming its an 18th century portrait and yet it looks fresh as a daisy on the reverse? Some dealers have been known to distress and age a picture on the front to make lamb look like mutton, if you get my meaning.
Another thing the back will often show you is whether or not it has been reframed, or cut and re-stretched. It’s common that as pictures age their canvases will start to sag on the frames they are stretched on and often the painting will be cut from the original canvas and remounted on a new canvas to prolong its life. While not ideal this does show that the painting does have some real age. The back will also be an easy place to see if the canvas had been torn and repaired at any point. A repair isn’t a reason to not buy a picture in my opinion, but its important to be aware particularly if the picture you are buying is an investment.
Beyond these two top considerations, it’s important to really look at a picture. The details can tell you if you have a great work on your hand or something that was dashed off quickly to pay the rent. Often painters did a fine job on the face and the details in the clothes and background became more vague and less considered. What is most unsettling is that very often its the men that got the attention and the extra work in their portraits and the women in the family, not so much.
Ask yourself as well, what did the artist convey about the sitter? Is it flattering and does it move you the viewer in anyway? Is there an emotion in the face, or is the painter just cajoling the person paying the bill into feeling good about themselves? These sorts of considerations can make the difference between a good painting and a truly great one. One might even saying taking this medium from a commercial practice to a truly artistic one.