Letter: Turning heads
Friday 06 August 1999
During my thirty years as a professional art historian, this or a very similar story has been published about once a decade, which is about long enough a new generation of scientists to think it has hit on something novel and for a new generation of journalists to decide it's a headline story for the silly season. They ignore the far greater significance of social traditions and craft skills.
The overwhelmingly majority of portraits were painted in Europe in oils between 1420, when the necessary skills had been developed, and 1900, when they had been largely superseded by photography.
Most were commissioned by powerful and arrogant men. When a woman was portrayed it was usually because she was somebody's wife.
A man portrayed on his own might face left or right. But is was established as early as 1434, when Jan van Eyck painted the so-called Arnolfini double portrait, now in the National Gallery, that the wife is shown on her husband's left hand. So, even when on separate canvases, the portrait of the wife is painted to hang to the right (as seen by the viewer) of that of the man. Each turns to face the other; it would look very odd if they did not.
A further detail: a right-handed painter would choose to have the light coming over his left shoulder, so that his working hand did not cast a shadow over the area he was painting. Therefore, his sitter, facing him, is illuminated from the sitter's right. In consequence, in those (mostly male) portraits with the sitter turning left, the bridge of the nose is emphasised by a strong shadow while the nose of a (woman) sitter turning to her right is more softly defined.
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Cyclist who knocked down three-year-old girl says his life has been 'destroyed'
- 2 A politically correct lefty goes to see Top Gear live – you'll probably believe what happened next
- 3 Young Preston fan has play-off hero Jermaine Beckford's shirt stolen from him at Wembley - which then appears for sale on Gumtree
- 4 Isis burns woman alive for refusing to engage in 'extreme' sex act, UN says
- 5 Puerto Rico, island of lost dreams: People are leaving the debt-hit territory in droves as near neighbour Cuba's star rises
Stolen Instagram photo sells for $90,000
Art Garfunkel calls Paul Simon a 'monster' with a Napoleon complex
Eurovision 2015 winner: Sweden beats Russia and Italy to take the title from Conchita Wurst
Dheepan, film review: Palme d'Or prize goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Game of Thrones, The Gift, Season 5, Episode 7: Why two of the show’s most iconic characters just met
As a white man, I'm surprised more women aren't tweeting the hashtag #KillAllWhiteMen
Scotland may have to leave the EU even if it votes to stay in, David Cameron confirms
The day that Britain resigned as a global power
SNP fury as HS2 finds 'no business case' for taking fast train service to Scotland
EU referendum: David Cameron to deny EU migrants and under-18s the chance to vote
A nation of inequality: How the UK is failing to feed its most vulnerable people