The lost secrets of Classical Art: Sir Henry Raeburn and portraiture

The lost secrets of Classical Art: Sir Henry Raeburn and portraiture

by Charles Harris
article from Monday 20, March, 2017

Dear Readers,

LAST WEEK I began with an introduction to this new series of The Lost Secrets of Classical Art and presented an important first secret. For, in those words of a Scots poet: ‘A Poem  should not mean,  but be’ – so too it is with art, it should 'be'.

Given the size, or complexity of this reality, I hope you also asked yourself – How? So let us now go to the National Gallery in Edinburgh and look at that wonderful famous portrait by Sir Henry Raeburn of Colonel Alastair Ranaldson Macdonell of Glengarry

As we look at this work, we immediately see this is a painting of a standing male figure in a heroic pose. He looks a real man to walk the mountains and glens beside, yet more still, we see he is also human. It is a portrait of reality, and we would know this man with indifference to any other if we saw him. This reality in art occurs, happily, as Raeburn beautifully used that language of painting from The Great Tradition of Painting, which lasted for almost seven hundred years.

Standing in front of this portrait, the first thing we see is light and dark. And it is a convincing light: ‘The light that lighteth every man who cometh into the world.’ While to present this light, Raeburn used the now abandoned skills of tonality, in a limited number of steps. This was the initial method of design used in all great painting describing the nature and extent of light present.

While again, and as in the reality in life as occurs outdoors, the light is shining upon the subject in the painting and what is not lit, not shined upon, falls into shadow. And it is through this use of light, or the absence of this light, that we are first shown and recognise this picture of humanity, a male figure standing in this painting.

Naturally looking from the head downwards, the light immediately shines upon the front of his face, upon the decoration of the hat and upon the white neck scarf. And taking this as a key to how the rest of the painting is constructed, we can also call this, the light value. Then moving our eye down the work, this bright light next appears upon the figure’s right hand, upon the sabre, the waistcoat, upon jewellery and a fitting on top of the sporran. It appears again brightly on the flesh of his the right knee, upon the white in the stockings and the shiny tip of his right shoe.  

In this portrait we see the flesh or objects that are completed in this light are done so within the tradition of classical knowledge, skill and understanding. This is still the common language of great painting, which was abandoned with modernism and modern art at the end of the ninetieth century and the beginning of the twentieth century.

As the painting is executed within that past convention of limited tonal values, we see a different grey value exists upon the wall behind the figure. It also describes the effects of light upon the darker colour of the tartan; and upon the darker colours of the rifle, the floor, the sporran, the waistcoat, the feather bonnet; and right back upon the shields and swords, plus the horn, all hanging behind the figure upon a wall. Finally, to complete the convention, a dark tonal value is shown in the use of shadows and the absence of light. It falls from the figure onto the wall, and upon all of the dark side of the figure clothes. It appears again on the dark side of the rifle and on the shoes, and in other quiet areas.

The painting also has a great temperature strength. It is used softly to support those tonal values and show us wonderful colours in light. We see this temperature use practically in many ways. For example, we see how it aids the tartan fabric making it appear firm and fresh. It is not used to create meaningless detail, but as a way to express colour in a controlled manner. And we see this in the way it helps lift the stiff tartan forward in three dimensions, away from the stone wall behind.

So as result of great traditional ability, we can see our figure’s form existing here in convincing reality, and he stands proudly in this light and colour, both in practical strength and as a beautiful design. For this all delightfully allows the light to help create those three dimensions of his existence, which we can all see and experience clearly.

Next, in Raeburn’s marvellous use of space we again see something taken and shown from the great tradition. The space, exists as a part of the complete design in making the visual reality of great painting and is a joy to see. We experience that first space, which occurs between us and the painting, although we may not have recognised the significance. This is a painter's own space, and if you don’t work and draw directly from life, you can never begin with this initial visual structure which helps us to locate and see this painting, with it’s standing figure in form and space.

Here is also the use of life drawing, with line providing edges and the means to recognise distance, which provides us all with a conventional tradition that allows us to experience space. This can occur with simplicity itself when an honest accurate outline allows us to recognise and identify any objects shown in silhouette and also gauge the distance between any objects to determine their size and any space in-between.

And line has other functions too, in technical drawing, in architecture, in illustration and in a multitude of designs. For most things that are manufactured today require an image or require the skills of illustration, but in this painting, the drawing is seeking to create three dimensions which, as I have mentioned before, is strong, intense, and uncompromising, with accuracy on a scale like most Renaissance giants in painting. It is splendid, magnificent, large and bold.

Finally, regarding scale, the size of this painting is proper life size. For it is a sight size figure, shown as a large standing portrait. It has elegance in a strong natural manner, where the truth of his character is portrayed, through that constant drawing and painting, which working directly from life provides.

And this tells us other things too. We recognise he would be a strong worthy opponent. We understand this directly from the pose, in the masculine stance and facial expression. We also visually know this painting is real. We can understand, here is a man of the mountains whose word is stone. We see the pink flesh is drawn and painted as frail and human, yet we know too the man is drawn strong and is capable of holding to life in an upright manner. And it is these human qualities and the conviction of genuine life that makes this a great work.

You will probably have noticed, I have not mentioned any modern story telling, for happily with this great painting it is unnecessary. This is a wonderful portrait of Scottish life and shown for us by the National Gallery in Edinburgh. It is one of the best paintings in the Collection, with a wonderful solid three-dimensional reality and that soft rich magnificent colouring. This is a painting in keeping with the giants of the Great Tradition, strong, forceful, real, convincing – and Scottish.

So in closing today - What secrets have you discovered this time? I can guess you may question why those past skills and understandings are lost and of course wonder why?

Sadly these problems continuously arise from a failure of the twentieth century to recognise how all that is called modern art is not art, and may at best be merely decoration. While the ideals of high art built upon that great tradition with those wonderful classical standards were not just despised but were abandoned throughout this time period. So these problems come to us today from a continuing obsession with failed modernism, the failure of modern art historians and the opinions of experts.

Thus I will end with words from a famous actor, who when talking about a grave political situation which had affected several large nations, eloquently said, “The difficulty is that it is all left to the experts. However, there are no experts when it comes to questions of compassion and humanity.”

Photo courtesy of National Galleries of Scotland through Creative Commons. Article copyright of Charles Harris 2017.

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