Portraiture and Materiality

October 18-19,2013

This colloquium—co-convened by Viccy Coltman, Senior Lecturer and Head of History of Art at the University of Edinburgh, and Marcia Pointon, Professor Emeritus in History of Art at the University of Manchester—brought together participants who worked on dress, engaged with portraiture as a visual art, or had extensive experience with literary or documentary materials that pertain to the relationship between portraiture and materiality.

Portraiture is an art form predicated upon the individual human subject. This also holds true in the case of group portraits where distinguishing individuality within the collective might be more crucial. Yet portraiture is also an art form that stages the materiality of the world and its particularities. Scholarly attention is paid to artefacts represented in portraits when those material objects are understood as symbols affirming a sitter’s identity and lending credence to iconographical exercises in a genre that does not generally lend itself to this. These artifacts are largely ignored. For dress and fashion historians, portraiture has been understood as a mine to be accessed for evidence of how, when, and how clothes were worn. The contention of this colloquium was that portraiture is not, however, a visual equivalent to an inventory. This approach ignores the fictitious and contractual nature of portraiture with all its ramifications.

Some of the questions which were addressed in this colloquium were: How is material culture registered in portraiture and with what consequence? How is portraiture registered in material culture and what are the consequences? By what means should art historians engage with the historical specificities of material things represented in portraiture? Given that portraits are themselves material objects, how may the materiality of the portrait be understood as part of a wider study of material and visual culture? How far is the representation of materials in portraiture a question of the particular versus the general, the detail as opposed to the whole, and is this therefore a conflicted site with the potential for socially and politically subversive practices? How can art historians working on portraiture creatively and profitably engage with historians of dress and historians of fashion, and vice versa, recognizing the profound methodological differences within and between the disciplinary areas.

Participants included:
Viccy Coltman, University of Edinburgh; Tarnya Cooper, National Portrait Gallery; Edwina Ehrman, Victoria and Albert Museum; Eva-Lena Karlsson, National Museum, Stockholm; Marcia Pointon, University of Manchester; Adrian Randolph, Dartmouth College; Katie Scott, The Courtauld Institute of Art; Peter Stallybrass, University of Pennsylvania; Susan J. Vincent, University of York; Bert Watteeuw, Rubenianum