On portraits and attributes

Jessica, 60 x 80 cm, acrylic on canvas, ©2007 Julie Galante.

I’ve been thinking a lot about attributes recently. In portraiture, an attribute is an object included to help the viewer identify the subject, or to communicate something about the subject. Artists’ self portraits often include paint brushes or a palette, for example. Catholic saints are often recognizable because of their attributes, such as St. John the Baptist’s hairy cloak or the many arrows poking through St. Sebastian’s body. In traditional portraiture, a scholarly lady might be depicted with her hand on a stack of correspondence, a sailor with his arm resting atop a giant anchor. Attributes can be subtle or obvious, literal or symbolic.

Would your attribute be a peacock scarf?
Jen, 40 x 50 cm, oil on canvas, ©2010 Julie Galante.

While strolling through the academic portraits in Munich’s Neue Pinakothek recently, I started thinking about how I could incorporate attributes into my own work. With few exceptions, my portraits tend to depict the subject alone and out of context. I rarely include a distinguishable background, and even clothing details are usually left out. If I were to set out to include this traditional part of portraiture in my new paintings, how would I do it? Would I be literal, choosing an object from the subject’s daily life? Would I let my subjects choose their own attributes, or would I assign them myself? Would I make these attributes about description, aspiration, or something else entirely?

What if I just chose the object that a person spends the most time with? For many of us in today’s world, that would end up being a piece of technology: a cell phone, a laptop, an ipod. But even for those most connected to their devices of choice, would this be the item you chose to define yourself? Could an ipad be symbolic of something more noble or abstract, such as a love of learning, or games, or communication?

What about you? If I were to paint your portrait, what would your attribute be?

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13 Responses to “On portraits and attributes”

  1. J. Aerts says:

    I think I’d be depressed if you painted me with a blackberry in hand :)

    You could paint me with:
    – a boarding pass & my passport
    – reading a book (definitely)
    – a french chef knife and a cutting board
    – bird watching binoculars

  2. Jul says:

    How about your Kindle? Somehow not as romantic as a book, no?

  3. J. Aerts says:

    yeah, not as romantic, and yet more likely…

  4. Jul says:

    I think a passport would be a good one for me, too. Except my passport is off touring Italy without me. Poop.

  5. Christine says:

    If the painting is commissioned, I think it would be difficult to insist on making that decision for your subject but I think the portrait might be interesting if there were an attribute added by you, the artist. People rarely see themselves as others see them and it “could” make for a fun surprise….it “could” also really get you into hot water with the subject ;-) But it would be loads of fun for the rest of us!!!!

  6. Jen says:

    Please paint me with one red boob.

  7. Jul says:

    @Christine – It would be fun to insist on including an attribute of my choosing in every commissioned portrait! I’ll have to keep that in mind for when I’m so famous and in-demand that I can act like a diva towards my clients. :) But you forgot to answer the question…

    @Jen – Actually I was thinking the peacock scarf was your attribute. Not the boob.

  8. Mark says:

    I think it would almost be better for the artist to pick it, assuming the artist was somewhat familiar with the person. Anything I can think of for myself would be self-flattering, highly obscure, or deadly dull.

  9. Christine says:

    Ahhh true…I answered all but the last question….my attribute would be a dragonfly :-o

  10. Jan says:

    I’d be a “mature” woman with a young heart…….what says “young heart” to you?

  11. Jul says:

    @Mark – For you I’d have to choose a little parade, proceeding subtly around you. Maybe a marching band. All consisting of fish, of course.

    I don’t always have the luxury of getting to know my subjects before I paint them, but I do like the idea of choosing an attribute myself. After all, a portrait is the artist’s interpretation of the subject.

    @Christine – Hmmm. Interesting.

    @Jan – Good question. My immediate idea was to represent “young at heart” with a bit of facial expression – an ever-so-slightly mischievous look, or a particular light in the eye. But that’s not an attribute! So my next idea was a puppy or kitten, sitting in your palm or chasing an imaginary mouse across your shoulder. But maybe that’s too obvious? This is fun to think about.

  12. Terah says:

    Hmmm. A horse ormdog or some western artifact for me. Interesting question. Visiting from. CED. Terah

  13. Scott says:

    My obvious attribute would be the MacBook Pro that I work and play on now. It’s interesting to look back over the years gone by and think about what attributes would have fit certain stages in my life: book, puzzle, soccer ball, trumpet, yo-yo, bike.

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