Social Life, Class & the Portrait.
It seems axiomatic that the genre of the portrait should serve as a vehicle for communicating certain ideas about the social structure, its classes, and the various professions in a specific historical period. For example John Singer Sargent only admitted to the fashionable glitz of the rich and wealthy; William Strang represented the habits of the bohemian and the bourgeois; and Mark Gertler hinted at his own lower-class Jewish origins, though he was to rise into the empyrean heights of the aesthetic upper-middle class at Garsington. Class is certainly important when considering portraits, but as with most theories or generalisations, the hypothesis soon crumbles. The range of likenesses of famous men and women done by outstanding portraitists like Augustus John, Orpen, Rothenstein and Gertler might seem to offer a kind of collective social portrait of captains of industry, heroes of the battlefield, grande dames, poets and writers from all strata, but society is never static; these artists lived at a time when political, economic and military authority was under scrutiny due to the growing liberalisation of society after the puritanical Victorian period. Moreover, each artist had their own attitude towards portrait-painting and there were also psychological angles to consider. An artist like Augustus John would inject something of his own personality into his portraits of sitters, thus it would be more accurate to say that society- as conveyed via the portrait- was seen through the temperament of the artist whatever their social origins, or the class they elected to represent. John’s biographer Michael Holroyd goes further and suggests that John showed his own personality obliquely through the portraits of other subjects. So, according to this theory, John’s portraits were a "gallery" of selves projected onto other people. Thus John manufactured a variety of identities rather than the image of a single integrated human being, and he never believed that his fellow painters like Orpen and Rothenstein had captured the true essence of his being in their own portraits of him. John’s projected self might be contrasted with Orpen who was obsessed with his self-image; but note that it is always Orpen’s own undifferentiated personality that is shown to the spectator, even down to the same pose which seldom varies throughout his self-portraits. Orpen might disguise himself as Chardin, but we are in no doubt that it is his own, aggressive persona that is offered to the viewer. To complicate matters further, some painters gradually introduced satire into their portraits, such as stressing the red face of an industrialist, or the general over-burdened with medals, thus reflecting a muted anxiety about the place of these individuals at the top of society. For example, William Orpen chose to portray T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) not in the heroic way like Augustus John did, but with a shiftiness which ill-becomes such an iconic figure. What could have been the reason for treating Lawrence in this manner? Did Orpen discern something that had passed other painters by? It is interesting that Lawrence’s friend, the poet Robert Graves said that Orpen’s portrait (above) had more of a street-urchin's furtiveness about it than John’s more respectable likeness.
 Goodbye to All That.