Face Value: Portraiture and the Site of the Self

Isabel Seligman

Napoleon Bonaparte, Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1830, oil on canvas, 76.2 cm x 63.1 cm © National Portrait Gallery, London

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington by Benjamin Robert Haydon, oil on canvas, 1839. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1839, oil on canvas, 76.2 cm x 63.5 cm © National Portrait Gallery, London

The two paintings with which I begin this essay came into the collection of the National Portrait Gallery fairly recently. Both painted in the mid-nineteenth century by Benjamin Haydon, Napoléon Bonaparte and its companion portrait Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington were transferred from the National Gallery in 1994: an object lesson in the contested boundary between portraiture and history painting, and the role of the face in that particular contest. The two paintings depict military heroes not in action, but contemplation. That of Bonaparte, one of twenty-three variants of the subject by Haydon, was painted decades after his defeat and some years after his demise; in Wellington’s case, his civilian clothes underscore the poignancy with which he gazes on the site of his historic victory. Both portraits make a virtue of the fact that the face of the subject is so famous it need not be the star of the show. Indeed, despite their formal attire and stiff posture, their joint stare across wide vistas (separated by history but mirrored in Haydon’s composition) asks us to consider them in a much more personal way than a full facial portrait might have been able to: it is an absence we are asked to identify with.

Some might consider the role of the face in portraiture beyond question. If it is assumed, as Voltaire said of Candide, that the face is the index to the mind, and there may be many ballads penned to a mistress’s eyebrow, but none that I know to the back of her head, where else could the visible identity of a subject be said to reside? I will not be approaching the subject face-on, however. Rather, I will examine the expressive potential and pragmatics of portraits with a focus other than the face – whether the face is blurred, obscured or absent altogether. In so doing, I hope to question the assumed supremacy of the face in portraiture, and ultimately, the site of the self, for both the subject and the implied spectator.

Heads of a Man and a Woman, Edgar Degas, c. 1877-1880, Monotype, 7.2 x 8.1 cm © Trustees of the British Museum

Heads of a Man and a Woman, Edgar Degas c. 1877-1880 Monotype 7.2 x 8.1 cm © Trustees of the British Museum

Three Studies of Ludovic Halévy, Edgar Degas c. 1880 Charcoal 32.1 x 47.9 cm © National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

I will begin with an instance of facial blurring and elision in a series of drawings and monotypes by Edgar Degas, originally intended as illustrations to a book of short stories by Ludovic Halévy, La Famille Cardinal (Paris, 1872). The book focused on two daughters Virginie and Pauline, both ballet dancers at the Opéra, their theatrical mama and numerous admirers. Halévy himself featured in the fictional stories, tying the various strands together. In 1879 Degas portrayed him waiting in the wings of the theatre in a pastel now in the Musée d’Orsay1; this was around the time that he approached Halévy, the two having been acquaintances since their school days at Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris2, to propose a collaboration for the next edition of his book. The monotype Heads of a Man and a Woman is one of roughly seventy-eight known works for this project, and one of many in which the faces have been deliberately blurred, or obscured. As Halévy himself was a central character, his portrait features in at least nine of these illustrations.

However, as a sheet of studies in the National Gallery, Washington3, and a majority of the subsequent portrait illustrations show, offering a view of him from behind it is almost impossible to distinguish him from the anonymous crowd of ‘admirers’ (for example Pauline and Virginie Conversing with Admirers) and we rely almost purely on captions to do so. Given that illustration are often tasked to provide a memorable visualisation of characters, it is perhaps easy to see, judging by other women’s faces almost entirely in lost profile (for example The Jet Earring), from behind, or obscured by veils, why Halévy eventually rejected the proposal. This is especially apparent if one contrasts Degas’s images with the eventual choice of caricaturist and salon painter Charles Lucien Léandre for the job. In his illustrations almost every character is distinctive, full frontal, and turns to face us, even when this results in unnatural contortions. This facial clarity had also been a characteristic of Edmond Morin’s earlier illustrations for the edition of 1872.

Illustration for La Famille Cardinal (Pauline and Virginie Conversing with Admirers), Edgar Degas c.1880 – 1883 Monotype Plate: 21.5 x 16.1 cm Sheet: 28.7 x 19.1 cm © Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Meta and Paul J. Sachs


The Jet Earring, Edgar Degas 1876–77 Monotype printed in black ink on white wove paper Plate: 8.2 x 7 cm Sheet: 18 x 13.2 cm © Metropolitan Museum of Art

So can Degas’s s moody and oblique portraits really be considered portraits at all? We are assured by the caption attached that the person depicted is Halévy, but to a spectator unfamiliar with the subject, the identity resides in the portrait’s context alone. Perhaps, however, it is in fact the subject of the portrait about which we have been mistaken all along. Taken as a whole, the series gives an almost perfect portrait of the dim and fleeting world of backstage life – the equal and opposite of life lived on stage, where the glimpses and glances of a select few replace the voracious gaze of the crowd. We might thus infer that the absence of faces, their blurring or elision tells us not so much about the identity of the characters portrayed, although much can be deduced from their clothes, hair, and general bearing, but about the character of the spectator. He is implied as one of the general admirers, the inner circle allowed privileged access to the stars, whose presence does not so much disturb as participate in the secrecy of those conspiring, almost exactly the position of the artist himself. In the catalogue essay for his exhibition Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins (Louvre, 1993) Jacques Derrida compares the exploratory motion of a drawing to that of a blind person groping their way in the absence of sight. He posits that every drawing of a blind person thus becomes an allegory for the endeavour of the artist, or a self-portrait, if you will allow it. Similarly in Degas’s monotypes, the non-facial portrait implies the proximity and intimacy of the spectator-as-artist, and as Halévy appears in his own stories, so the spectator is also drawn into their world. This implication of the spectator as artist within the scene, one who needs, as it were, no introductions, is a reversal of the manner in which Renaissance artists self-portraits are often identified as the only face staring directly out of a multi figure composition (for example Botticelli’s ‘inserted’ self-portrait at the lower left of his Adoration of the Magi, c. 1445, Uffizi). This tradition is also subverted in Henri Fantin-Latour’s self-portrait drawn from behind, a study for his homage to Berlioz, L’Anniversaire.

Self-portrait, Henri Fantin-Latour, study for the painting 'L'Anniversaire', 1876, Black chalk; on transparent paper, 31.4 x 24.5 cm © Trustees of the British Museum

Self-portrait, study for the painting ‘L’Anniversaire’, Henri Fantin-Latour 1876 Black chalk; on transparent paper 31.4 x 24.5 cm © Trustees of the British Museum

L’Anniversaire (Hommage à Berlioz), Henri Fantin-Latour 1878 Oil on canvas 220 × 170 cm © Musée de Grenoble

L’Anniversaire (Hommage à Berlioz), Henri Fantin-Latour, 1878, Oil on canvas, 220 × 170 cm © Musée de Grenoble

In a letter of 1876 he described how he had imitated ‘what the Italian’s did with their donors combined with Saint John or Saint George: [depicting] myself bringing a wreath for the commemoration… My head facing the other way and bowed, my back turned (one can hardly recognise me) now I really look as if I am climbing the stairs to go and pay my respects.’4 In this way, with a sleight of hand which seems to deny his part in it, he gets around the fact that he is both the commissioner of this painting (sprung of his own love and deep respect for Berlioz) and its creator. Describing himself as a symbol for the ‘Modern Man’, Fantin thus substitutes his own identity for that of a type, the multitude in mourning, whilst all the while retaining his identity for those in the know.

While portraits from behind can thus imply the intimacy of the spectator as one of the initiated, as a drawing of four children by Guercino shows, they are also ripe for caricature.

Caricature of four children standing; seen from behind, including a girl at left and a small boy with a staff turning round, Guercino Giovanni Francesco Barbieri c. 1606-1666 Pen and brown ink, with brown wash 27.6 x 24.7 cm © Trustees of the British Museum

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Caricature of a man seen from behind, c. 1760, Pen and black with grey wash, 20.5 x 13.7 cm © Trustees of the British Museum

Caricature of a man seen from behind, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo c. 1760 Pen and black with grey wash 20.5 x 13.7 cm © Trustees of the British Museum

In addition to familiarity, the perspective can also suggest an imbalance of power. Here arranged in descending order and reduced to a few comically exaggerated features, it is only the urchin who has turned round to face the viewer that is able to challenge their gaze, arms crossed in defiance. Tiepolo’s caricatures from behind, for example, drawn roughly a century later, while similarly reductive seem much less jocund as a result of the isolation of the figures on the page. This drawing and another in the British Museum collection come from a volume of caricatures possibly intended by Tiepolo for his sons Lorenzo and Domenico. The ability to convey character without any kind of facial expression was surely a gift worth passing on, and was capitalised upon by Domenico in many of his series of Satyrs and Centaurs (for example British Museum 1885,0509.5) and Pulcinello drawings, where the protagonists’ features are simultaneously hidden and exaggerated by masks. A drawing from behind need not necessarily be reductive, however, as the drawing of a young boy attributed to Annibale Carracci shows. The love and attention lavished on every pleat in this young artist’s smock and hair on his head, is very much evidence to the contrary, and speaks once again to the easy intimacy of Fantin-Latour and Degas. As Jim says in Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, ‘I always loved the nape of your neck, the only part of you that I could watch without being seen.’5 When Antoine Watteau’s drawings were first etched, many of them from behind, as with this example by Francois Boucher, they were often accompanied by erotic verses. These etchings are as much about the voyeurism and subjection of an unknown object of desire, as intimacy with the subject of one.

Attributed to Annibale Carracci, A young painter, seen from behind; whole-length standing, holding a palette and brush, wearing a smock, c. 1575-1609, Black and red chalk, 37.8 x 18.8 cm © Trustees of the British Museum

A young painter, seen from behind; whole-length standing, holding a palette and brush, wearing a smock, Attributed to Annibale Carracci c. 1575-1609 Black and red chalk 37.8 x 18.8 cm © Trustees of the British Museum

Woman standing seen from the back, plate 250 from the series ‘Figures de différents caractères’, Francois Boucher after Antoine Watteau 1728 Etching 24.7 x 18.0 cm © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Portrait of Berthe Morisot, Édouard Manet c. 1847-1883 Brush drawing in grey ink over graphite 17.9 x 12.5 cm

From this position of power, I want to move on to the face when obstructed by the subject. Manet’s portrait of Berthe Morisot in the British Museum, from behind and obscured by a veil, recalls another of Morisot’s evasions, a painting of 1872 by Manet, now in the Musée d’Orsay with her face completely covered by a fan. Although we have many portraits and self-portraits depicting Morisot’s face – superb illustrations of her forthright and enquiring gaze – a portrait where the subject seeks to hide themselves, is perhaps as telling as one in which all is bared. The fan is also a particularly loquacious obstruction, given its history as an instrument of private communication where public small talk was restricted. Similarly in a portrait of Samuel Beckett by Avigdor Arikha (British Museum, 2004,0929.12); a great friendship existed between artist and subject (Arikha spoke of Beckett as ‘a lighthouse and a father figure’), and we may thus surmise that the hands blocking the face from view are directed towards the world at large, rather than the artist, and describe as much about the subject’s internal state as a full facial portrait might have done. In the year after Beckett’s death, Arikha felt unable to work. One of the first portraits that he painted was Sam’s Spoon (1990, Collection Doron Sebbag)6.  As in the metonymy of Jacob’s Room, the novel by Virginia Woolf (London, 1922), or My Bed by Tracey Emin (1998, private collection), a life is conveyed by the trappings it has left behind. Emin recently said of her most famous work, ‘What we need to see with the bed is that someone lonely walked away from it.’7 This loneliness is perfectly conveyed in a way that would be very hard to capture in the depiction of someone’s face; the portrait’s subject remains an absent centre.

I have only just begun to explore this typology of the non-facial portrait, and the lack of terminology to describe them is not borne out by the number of instances available in just a few collections. Using the National Portrait Gallery’s helpful thematic search one can easily find out that there are no fewer than 471 portraits in their collection from behind, and doubtless many more employing substitution through other means such as metonymy or even, as explored by Mark Fairnington’s essay on portraits of body parts as keepsakes and mementos, synecdoche. As a decentred and atypical choice of perspective they are particularly adapted to depicting the relationship between artist and subject, and internal states which evade traditional depictions of facial features, thus representing a rich and largely unmapped terrain of expression. Whether through blurring, veiling, obscuring or substitution, the shift in focus from the face of the subject constructs a new relationship between subject and spectator, and thus radically expands the possibilities of portraiture.


Isabel Seligman is the Bridget Riley Art Foundation Exhibition Curator at the British Museum. The project encourages artists and art students to engage with the Museum’s graphic collection, and to draw from it. ‘Lines of Thought’, an exhibition of drawings from the Museum from the fifteenth century to the contemporary, will begin touring the UK in September 2016.


  2. See Lot Notes, Christie’s Sale 2352 – Impressionist and Modern Evening Sale, 3 November 2010 New York,
  4. Douglas Druick., Fantin-Latour, exhibition catalogue, (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1983), p. 230
  5. ‘J’ai toujours aimé ta nuque. Le seul morceau de toi que je pouvais regarder sans être vu.’ Henri-Pierre Roché, Jules et Jim, Paris, Gallimard, 1953, p. 85.
  6. 21 September 1990, oil on canvas, 380 x 460mm (Collection of Doron Sebbag, Tel Aviv; reproduced Thomson 1996, p. 213,
  7.  Tracey Emin and Simon Grant, ‘Perfect Bedfellows’, Tate Etc. issue 34: Summer 2015,