(May 14, 2012) – Have you ever pored over an album of old pictures and been flooded with memories of childhood or a special occasion? For many, it’s ordinary to believe that it would take a large collection of photographs to understand a life story. Imagine for a moment that you had to sum up your entire life in just one picture. What would you include in that picture to explain the details of your life?

For antiquity’s privileged few, a person may have only one opportunity to have their likeness represented in a single, lasting image. For the people of the era, the painted portrait was a medium in which their interests, sense of style, possessions, and demeanor could be communicated to the viewer.

Queen Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz

Queen Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Oil on Canvas, Johann Zoffany, Holburne Museum

Portraits can communicate a detailed story of a person’s life. For instance, the featured image of Queen Charlotte painted by Johann Zoffany in 1766 depicts a woman with many details that describe her lifestyle and demeanor. Her relaxed pose is uncommon for a royal portrait. The portrait exhibits the queen’s appreciation for fashionable clothing as indicated by her form fitting dress trimmed in lace. One glove is removed revealing an extravagant bracelet. Another jewelry object has been covered over by her other glove. Roses cover the front of her dress, one a solid pink while the other a mottled variation.

Could the queen’s relaxed pose express to the viewer that she was attempting to reduce the tone of her royal status? Could the roses on her dress represent her love of nature or have been for decorative purposes?

Whether in an art museum, a gallery or in an historic site such as Belle Meade Plantation, if you happen to cross paths with a portrait of a person that lived centuries ago, take a moment to appreciate and study the portrait’s symbolic gestures.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a portrait must be worth a lifetime.

Matthew Colin Bailey
Director of Preservation 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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