If you are willing to define what you mean by it, the idea of progress in the arts is useful. Take Titian's portraits. Whether or not those who first saw them understood that a new way of recording likeness was evolving, that way would define the technical ambitions of European portrait painting until photography put an end to them. In portraiture, as Titian proved, accurate drawing and minute detail are not a sure way to naturalness, and may even preclude the transition from seeing patches of paint to having an impression of a living face. Compare Holbein's portraits - true, I am willing to guess, in contour and complete to every whisker of stubble - with Titian's most persuasive ones, or just with the three single heads now in the National Gallery (all quite early work). There is the woman in a purple-red dress meeting your eye full on (least typecast of all his painted ladies); the handsomely bearded man who looks at you over his blue-sleeved right shoulder, as though quietly challenging you to make the first move; and the young man, almost in profile, holding a glove and showing a bit of red sleeve, the face angular and rather bony, capable, you might guess, of contained amusement. All seem oddly alive: information about the face has not been gathered as chin and nose and eye-information; these are pictures of expressions, of passing configurations of the flesh, not maps of its permanent geography. They are the kinds of picture which persuade people that they have been made aware of a personality. The image creates the illusion that you can read a soul.
LRB 5 April 2001 | PDF Download