Holly, BP Portrait Award 2011

Louis Smith was awarded 2nd prize for his portrait of Holly in the BP Portrait Award 2011.

His aim is to create a narrative portrait style. This involves having the sitter as a subject in their own theatrical composition. This style is inspired by tales from myth and legend, and also actual events in history. The idea is to create a larger than life view of the sitter in a role they may aspire to, or as a character they can relate to. Most classical paintings in Western Art use these themes as a starting point for a composition, so why not use them in portraiture.
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Stories from Ancient history and religion have long since been a guide for the morals and beliefs of the human condition. The themes of these tales are often dark, with the hero or heroine battling against adversity, emerging triumphant and stronger for having faced their demons. We can all identify with at least one historical or fictitious character, or possibly with an era in which we would have liked to live. The narratives are used in a way that encourages the sitter to become emotionally invested in the piece and creates an attachment that can be used in a positive way. The portrait may be an affirmation of who they are, or as an inspiration for who they want to be.

Why a narrative portrait?
For example, the portrait of Holly is based on the story of Prometheus. He was a champion of mankind who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals. Zeus punished him for his crime by having him bound to a rock while a great eagle ate his liver every day only to have it grow back to be eaten again the next day. Holly is looking into the face of the eagle with a calm resilience, accepting the fate that lies before her. The scene is positive affirmation of endurance, the courage and perseverance to face the suffering of everyday life.

This genre of painting could be viewed by some as egotistical or self centred, however, I view it as a way to paint a portrait that has personal meaning to the subject and in doing so produce a piece of art that will start many a conversation and leave a lasting impression.
For information on the model Holly click here>>>

A brief history of Narrative Portraits

Nude portraits
Narrative portraits date back to Greece where nobles would commission themselves depicted as educated scholars, warrior type figures, athletes or in a way to pay homage to mythological figures. They would be typically idealised in the nude or some state of undress. The culture celebrated the human form as a higher aesthetic, unlike the western culture of today which is generally inhibited by nudity in art.

Donor Portraits
Most medieval portraits were donor portraits. They are common in religious works of art, especially the paintings of the Middle Ages through to the Renaissance. The donor is usually shown kneeling to one side, in the foreground of the image and late into the Renaissance, the whole family could be shown. By the mid 15th century donors were shown integrated into the main scene, as bystanders and even participants.
As an example patrons commissioning a fresco for a church would have themselves painted into a religious scene, with a hierarchy of those donating the most being the most prominent in the fresco. The Medici family who almost bankrolled the renaissance are to be found in various fresco scenes in churches throughout Florence.

Detail from the Magi Chapel at the Palazzo Medici in Florence.
Detail from the Magi Chapel at the Palazzo Medici in Florence.

The above shows a fresco depicting The Procession of The Magi(1459-1460). (The journey of the three wise men to Bethlehem).
The fresco promotes Cosimo de’ Medici, Lorenzo Medici and other prominent Italians. The religious theme was a pretext to show the procession of important people who travelled to the meeting of the Council of Florence (1438-1439). The Fresco is probably the Medici’s boasting about their part in the reconciliation between the Catholic and the Byzantine churches.

Themed portraits

The themed portrait is recognised as becoming more popular in later years. Painters would paint their subjects in period costume or introduce some historical referance so the painting would not appear to date as contemporary fashions change all the time. Rembrant was such an artist dressing many of his patrons in styles and themes 100 years or more.

Rembrant Artemisa
Rembrant, Artemisa

This tradition has continued through the ages, below is a portrait of Portrait of Madame Récamier. This is an 1800 portrait of Juliette Récamier by Jacques Louis David showing her reclining on an empire style sofa in an empire line dressed as a modern vestal virgin..

Jacques-Louis David, portrait of Madame Récamier (1800), Musée du Louvre, Paris
Jacques-Louis David, portrait of Madame Récamier (1800), Musée du Louvre, Paris.

6 thoughts on “Holly, BP Portrait Award 2011”

  1. Beauriful portrait Louis, and thanks for sharing how you created it and giving me a bit of a history lesson 🙂
    I made the effort to go and see the original when I visited London and it was well worth it.
    I have photographed Holly a number of times and I think she brings out the best in all types of artists.
    I look forward to seeing more of your work, but appreciate that you work at a more measured pace than myself!

  2. I think your painting is awesome and beautiful, and I have enjoyed looking at your well presented and informative website, particularly the process of painting Holly.
    As someone who dabbles in picture framing, I must also say it is a delight to see such an appropriate and beautifully made frame on your painting. I wish you to win the big prize for your vision!

  3. Great to see narrative returning. Also good to see that when people say it is just a photo they can be referred to how the painting was physically created.

    I’m always amazed at how artists, critics in the UK attack this type of painting so much. The idea that it is self centred, egotistical, to me seems odd, all work put in the public arena is an exercise in self centred, egotism (I personally put as much work in the public arena as I can).

    Congratulations to you Louis on being short listed for the BP 2011.

  4. Hi Louis,
    Good to see you shortlisted today in the Guardian. It lead me to explore your work further on your web site. Perhaps it’s the teacher in me, but I do appreciate the way you have deconstructed ‘Holly’ historically and technically..I will direct my pupils to look at it!
    I know your work because you were in the 2009 BP show with me ..I know how great it is to be shortlisted on this particular year. I also followed your progress in the Threadneedle prize (again I exhibited in that 2008 and 2009)
    Anyway, great to see narrative is back in a big way in this years shortlist and good luck!

    Peter Monkman

  5. I love ancient Greek mythology and love your depiction in Holly.
    The setting/background is incredibly awe inspiring. I wish I could see a larger version to take in all the details of the space.
    I still cannot get over the Allegory of Prometheus. She has a steady countenance. Her pain is deep in her eyes, but her face is serene.
    Well deserved selection, good luck for the big prize!!

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