Interview with portrait artist Rosalind Freeborn: The ultimate selfie
Throughout history, humans have had a need to capture the faces of people in art form. To learn a little more about why, we asked our SideStory portraiture Insider, Rosalind Freeborn, about the enduring appeal of the portrait. ‘It’s the ultimate selfie,’ she tells us – and if Rembrandt was the original master, then who are we to disagree?
People have been making portraits since they were etching things into the sides of cave walls. What exactly are we dealing with here?
Portraiture comes in many different guises, so it’s not just the literal bits of encaustic or oil on flat surfaces; it’s the broader process of delving beneath the skin into the past of various different characters. What I find fascinating about portraits is that it’s this wonderful transmittance of something that’s come from the subject, is translated through the eyes and the brain and then the hands of an artist, and then fixed in time.
The British Museum have a collection of incredible tomb paintings from Egypt which are so well preserved they have the freshness of a painting that I might have done last week. They must have been made in life, because they look like a person: they’ve got expressions, they’ve got squints, they have all the human quirks that people have. It’s a very human thing, I think: where you love, respect or want a record of people, often we find these visual representations of them as individuals.
So they’re different to the statues of gods, for example?
You can see the difference in Roman sculpture. There are the examples that look like gods with their lovely curly hair, their long, aquiline noses and their perfectly formed lips, and then there are other paintings and sculptures which were obviously made of a real person. Here, they’ve got droopy eyes and the mouth is a bit funny, and they maybe have a dodgy expression. The artist must have had the person in front of them and responded to what they saw. Those imperfections – if you want to call them that – are so human. It’s just so interesting: we can read them as accurately as we could read the person standing next to us.
Capturing that humanity is so difficult, though, wouldn’t you say?
Getting a likeness is a hard thing to do, certainly. It takes practice and you really need to override what the brain assumes is there. When you’re young, your brain assumes that feet and hands are tiny, and that eyes start at the top of the head, when we all know that they start halfway down. So you have to override that and actually really, really look. Once you’ve got through that stage, you just keep exercising that knowledge about what people look like and the truth about how features arrange themselves.
As an artist, do you find you’re more able to capture that essence of life with the subject in front of you? What kind of emotion and personality are you able to transmute by seeing and interacting with the subject?
It’s very subliminal. It’s so strange. For instance, I was doing a portrait of a woman and it looked like her, but when we both looked at it, we agreed that she looked sad. I couldn’t have known, but her husband had died a few weeks earlier. That emotion was just emanating from her and there was nothing I could do to avoid that. It was trained into me, I suppose to capture it.
Is that the challenge? To get that 3D life into a 2D form?
Yes, absolutely. You can see it when you go to galleries and you can immediately spot a portrait where the subject hasn’t been there for much of the session. These are usually beautiful paintings, but I always feel there’s something missing. The ones where you get that sort of intensity are the ones where the artist has worked straight from the subject, where they’ve seen not only the geometry of the face but also the life within.
Which artists capture that energy really well?
Hogarth is a great hero of mine – he was fantastic. He must have been very, very quick, because he was able to create these incredible, animated paintings of children without making them look like little mannequins wearing fancy dolls’ clothes, which is quite something.
In the 1740s he did an amazing painting of The Shrimp Girl. She’s a lovely, cheery, buxom, pink-cheeked girl, probably wandering around somewhere like Billingsgate, selling her wares. You can imagine Hogarth saying, ‘oh, just stop there for a moment’, while he did a quick sketch – but an oil sketch – and I bet she just stood there, because there’s a freshness and an unfinishedness to it that you just couldn’t get in a studio away from her. It so perfectly captures a fleeting moment: the gestural brushstrokes are so clear to see.
Rembrandt, as well, was a great sketcher. There are these folders, and thank heavens they were saved, just full of sketches of people on street corners, or just people going about their daily lives. They’re just little pencil sketches, just enough information, because if someone’s bending over, they’re only doing it for a few seconds and you’ve got to be quick. Of course, artists working before photography had to train themselves to be extremely good. The trick, the skill, is capturing those brief moments and individual mannerisms and learning to observe all of that.
Is it quite hard to see those things in ourselves?
The truth is always out there, but people never ever see themselves as other people see them. The self-portrait has a whole history of its own – you just have to look at artists like Rembrandt who spent all of his life stopping what he was doing to do a self-portrait – the ultimate selfie.
There was a brilliant exhibition a few years back of his work, which assembled all of his self-portraits, and you can see the kind of undulations of his life; from wonderful young artist, thrusting young man, man about the world, married, and then the older man, when things start going a bit wrong with debts mounting up. By the end, you’ve got these little peeping eyes peering out of gnarled, mottled skin, and the threadbare clothes that he’s wearing. Taken as a series, it’s not so much a self-portrait as a profile of a life. It’s heartbreaking.
So, portraits really are a window to the soul, then? Do you think that’s why places like the National Portrait Gallery are always so popular?
Yes, I do. The BP Portrait competition, which runs through the summer, is brilliant. People are fascinated by it because it offers a little of what we’ve been talking about: the chance to get a glimpse into someone’s soul a little bit. I think this is particularly interesting because the portraits there are not just of the aristocrats of old – there are portraits of contemporary people, too, and often it’s those that are the draw.
Why do we have this perennial fascination with portraits?
We have this extremely human interest in seeing other humans. There cannot be anyone more fascinating than ourselves – I think that’s the way of it. We’re generally so intrigued – you see this when people look at group photographs. Who do they look for? They look for themselves! It doesn’t matter what your grandmother looks like – we’re more likely to say, ‘oh, I’m looking the wrong way’. It’s a very strong natural instinct to want to capture that, and when photography came in, that must have been such a boon, because generally all those box brownies – what were they doing? They were taking pictures of people.
Take a SideStory Experience with Rosalind Freeborn and head off the beaten track, discovering some of London’s smaller galleries in the company of a celebrated portrait artist.