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How to Have One's Portrait Taken

Having one’s portrait taken is no longer an isolated event in one’s life. It has become a kind of domestic and social duty, to which even though personally opposed, one must gracefully submit, unless he would incur the odium of neglecting the wishes of his family circle and the complimentary requests of his acquaintances.

It would seem at first sight that nothing is easier than to go to a photographer’s and get a good likeness. Nothing is really more uncertain and disappointing. In turning over the albums of our friends, how often we pass the faces of acquaintances and don’t know them at all! How is this? Simply because, at the moment when the picture was taken, the original was unlike herself. She was nervous, her head was screwed in a vise, her position had been selected for her, and she had been ordered to look at an indicated spot, and keep still. Such a position was like nothing in her real life, and the expression on the face was just as foreign. The features might be perfectly correct, but that inscrutable something which individualizes the face was lacking.

Now if the amenities of social life require us to have our pictures done, “it were as well they were well done,” and much toward this end lies within the sitter’s choice and power.

First as to the selection of the artist. It is a great mistake to imagine that photography is a mere mechanical trade. There is as much difference between two photographers as between two engravers. Nor will a fine lens alone produce a good picture. The pose of the sitter, the disposition of lights and shadows, the arrangement of drapery, are of the greatest consequence. A good artist has almost unlimited power in this direction. He can render certain parts thinner by plunging them into half-tone or by burying their outline in the shade, and he can deepen and augment other portions by surrounding them with light. Thus, if the head is too small for beauty, he can increase its size by throwing the light on the face; and if it is too large, he can diminish it by choosing a tint that would throw one half of the face into shadow.

If the artist has a lens which perpetually changes its focus, the result is a portrait in which the outlines are delicately soft and undefined. A view lens, or one that is perfectly flat, occupies nearly two minutes to complete the likeness, and the consequence is, the sitter moves slightly, and the required softness is obtained in an accidental manner. It is evident, therefore, that the most rapidly taken pictures are not necessarily the best. Then people have a hundred different aspects, and to seize the best and reproduce it is the function of genius, and not of chemicals.

Having selected a good artist, and one, also, whose position has enabled him to secure the best tools, the next duty of the sitter regards herself and her costume. In photography a good portrait may be quite nullified by the choice of bad colors in dress. Finery is the curse of the artist, but if he works in oils he can leave it out or tone it down. In photography, as the sitter comes, so she must be taken, with all her excellences or her imperfections on her head.

The colors most luminous to the eye, as red, yellow, orange, are almost without action; green acts feebly; blue and violet are reproduced very promptly. If, then, a person of very fair complexion were taken in green, orange, or red, the lights would be very prominent, and the portrait lack energy and detail. The best of all dresses is black silk,—silk, not bombazine, or merino, or any cottony mixture, as the admirable effect depends on the gloss of the silk, which makes it full of subdued and reflected lights that give motion and play to the drapery. A dead-black dress without this shimmer would be represented by a uniform blotch; a white dress looks like a flat film of wax or a piece of card-board; but a combination of black net or lace over white is very effective, though rarely ventured upon. An admirable softness and depth of color are given to photographs by sealskin and velvet.


Complexion must be considered with dress. Blondes can wear much lighter colors than brunettes. Brunettes always make the best pictures when taken in dark dresses, but neither blondes nor brunettes look well in positive white. Are any pictures so universally ugly as bridal ones? All violent contrasts of color spoil a picture, and should be particularly guarded against; and jewelry imparts a look of vulgarity.

Blondes suffer most in photographic pictures; their golden hair loses all its brilliancy, and their blue eyes, so lovely to the poet, are perplexity to the photographer. Before facing the lens, blondes should powder their yellow hair nearly white; it is then brought to about the same photographic tint as in nature.

Freckles, which are hardly any blemish in the natural face, become, on account of their yellow tint, very unpleasantly distinct in a photographic picture, and often give to the face a decidedly spotted look. They are easily disguised for the occasion. There ought to be in the dressing-room of every studio a mixture of a little oxide of zinc and glycerine; this is to be thinned with rose-water till of the consistence of cream, and applied to the face with a piece of sponge previous to the photographing process. It leaves the skin a delicate white color, and masks all freckles and discolorations. Let a lady with freckles try her picture first without this mixture, and again after the sponge and the cosmetic, and the value of the receipt will be at once appreciated. Its use has long been advocated by the British Journal of Photography.

In connection with this fact we may offer a few words of advice to ladies whose skins are apt to tan and freckle when exposed to the summer sun. Blue is, of all colors, most readily affected by light; and yellow is, of all colors, the least readily susceptible to it. If, then, a fine complexion is desired, the blue veil must be rigorously discarded, however becoming. Green could take its place, but a little yellow net would be better to save a delicate complexion than all the washes and Kalydors ever invented. Freckles and tan are nothing more than the darkening of the salts of iron in the blood by the action of light; and as blue is, of all colors, most easily affected by it, as we have said, any one can see how destructive to a fine skin a blue veil must be in sunny weather.

If the photograph is to be colored, the shade of the costume is not nearly of so much importance; but it may always be borne in mind that close-fitting light garments increase the size of the head, hands, and feet, and that a flowing ample dress renders these parts light and delicate. The advantage of coloring photographs is very great, if the artist be an able and judicious one, for that hardness of outline, which is more artificial than natural, may be in a great measure remedied by a clever brush; only, always object to solid colors; the most transparent water-colors alone should be used. However, it is a disputed question whether artificial coloring, however well done, improves photographs, since it certainly, in some measure, robs them of that accuracy and that air of purity which are the distinctive claims of the art. The next improvement in this method of limning faces will undoubtedly be the compelling of the sun—the source of all color—to paint the pictures he draws; and a number of recent facts point to this improvement as very probable within a short time.

Never permit yourself to be the lay figure of a photographer’s ideal landscapes. The cutting up of a portrait with balustrades, pillars, and gay parterres is fatal to the effect of the figure, which should be the only object to strike the eye. No photographic portrait looks so well as one with a perfectly plain background, but if some accessory is desired, then see that it does not turn the central figure into ridicule. If you have always lived in some modest home, do not be made to stand in marble halls or amid splendid imaginary domains. Young ladies reading in full evening costume, with water and swans behind them, or standing in trailing silks and laces in a mountain pass, are ridiculous enough. We saw a few days ago the face of a lovely girl looking out of a Champagne basket. The picture was artistically taken, but the extravagant conceit of the surroundings, utterly at variance with the original’s character, completely spoiled the picture. We have in mind also a famous belle sitting in an elaborate toilet in a room full of books and materials for writing and study, though all her little world knows that she never reads aught but the lightest of novels, and never writes anything but an invitation or a love-letter. Actresses taken in character may require an elaborate artificial background in order to assist the illusion, but private ladies, as a rule, look infinitely better without it.

In ladies’ portraits the setting-off of beauty is the thing to be borne in mind. This, in a photograph, is, in a great measure, a question of lights and shadows, and of their distribution. For every face there is a light and a shadow to be specially selected as the one that will show it to the best advantage. The most becoming light is one level with, or even somewhat beneath, the face, it being a great mistake to suppose the foot-lights on the stage unbecoming. A top light, such as we get in ordinary photographic rooms, augments the projection of the forehead, and throws a deep shadow over the eyes. The bridge of the nose, the lower lip, and chin separate themselves, as it were, in clear lights, from the rest of the face, and such an effect is very unbecoming and inappropriate for a young girl.

If the features are prominent, a clear bright light increases very decidedly that prominence, and also imparts a peculiar hardness to the expression that has probably no existence in the model. Therefore insist that, as far as possible, the light from above shall be got rid of, and a light from the side brought into use.

There is as much character in the human figure as in the face; consequently full-length portraits are best, because they add to the facial resemblance the attitude and peculiarities of the figure. If the portrait is half-size, then the attitude ought to indicate the position of the lower extremities. In bust portraits the head is everything, the bust merely sustains and indicates its size and proportion. The head, however, should never be represented without the bust, for the effect of such a portrait is a total want of unity; it offers no point of comparison by which the rest of the body can be judged,—a matter of great importance, as this is one of the most striking characteristics of the individual.

A carte de visite is a more agreeable likeness than a larger one, because it is taken with the middle of the lens, where it is truest; hence it is never out of drawing. Also, it hides rather than exaggerates any roughness of the face; and, again, it is so moderate in price that we can afford to distribute the pictures generously.

Photographs have a bad name for durability, and when we look over our albums and see those that were once strong and expressive now pale and faded, we are forced to admit that their beauty is evanescent. But this disadvantage is very much the fault of the artist. There is nothing in the chemical constitution of photographs—formed as they are by the combination of the precious metals—to make them evanescent. The trouble lies in the last process through which they pass. This process leaves them impregnated with a destructive chemical, and the removal of all traces of it is a difficult and tedious thing. To be finished effectually, the pictures ought to be bathed for a day in a good body of water constantly agitated and changed. Artists who are jealous of their art and of their personal reputation insist on this process being thoroughly attended to, but with inferior photographers the temptation to neglect it is very great, especially as in many cases the vicious chemical adds to the present brilliancy of the picture. They are further tempted by the impatience of sitters, who are often importunate for an immediate finish of their pictures. But if a durable portrait is wanted, ladies must allow the artist time for the proper cleansing of their photograph.

To the large majority of people the first interview with their photographic portrait is a heavy disappointment. They express themselves by an eloquent silence, turn it this way and that, hold it near and far off. After a little while they become used to it in its velvet frame, though they never in their heart acknowledge its truthfulness. Again, there are others to whom photography is very favorable, and they show to more advantage in their pictures than ever they did in reality. These last are people whose features are well balanced and proportioned, but who are not generally considered beautiful. Faces dependent for beauty on their mobility and expression suffer most, and are indeed, in their finer moods, almost untranslatable by this process.

Still, setting aside all artistic considerations, photographic portraits have a great social value, not only because they fairly indicate the personnel of their models, but because they so faithfully represent textures that we can form a very good idea from a carte de visite of the social position of the sitter, and incidentally, from the cut, style, and material of the dress, a very good notion also of their moral calibre.

Many things are permissible in photographic portraits—which may be retaken every few months—that would justly be deprecated in a finished oil portrait destined to go down with houses and lands to unborn generations. In such a picture any intrusion of the imagination is an impertinence if made at the slightest expense of truth.

The great value of an oil portrait is this: the divine, almost intangible light of expression hovering over the face is seized on by living skill and intellect, and imprisoned in colors. The sitter is not taken in one special moment, when his eyes are fixed and his muscles rigid, but in a free study of many hours the characteristics of the face are learned, and some felicitous expression caught and fixed forever. This is what gives portrait painting its special value, and drives ordinary photographic portraits out of the realms of art into those of mechanism.

Artists have various ways of treating their sitters. Some throw them into a Sir-Joshua-like attitude, and put in a Gainsborough background. Others compass the face all over, and map it out like a chart, taking elevations of every mole and dimple. But whenever an artist feels unsafe away from his compasses, and cannot trust himself, sitters should not trust him.

There is a real pleasure in sitting to a master in his art, a real weariness and disgust in sitting to a tyro. It must be remembered that not only is the best expression to be caught, but that the features of any face vary so much under physical changes and mental moods that their differences may actually be measured with a foot-rule. An ordinary artist will measure these distances; an extraordinary artist will catch their subtle effects, and will draw the features as well as the expression at their very best.

A really fine oil portrait should look as well near by as it does at a distance.

Suffer no artist to leave out blemishes which contribute to the character of the original; ugly or pretty, unless a portrait is a likeness, it is worthless. There are very clever artists who cannot paint a true portrait, because they leave every picture redolent of themselves. Thus Bartolozzi in engraving Holbein’s heads, made everything Bartolozzi. But in a portrait the individuality of the sitter should permeate and usurp the whole canvas, so that in looking at it we should think only of the person represented, and quite forget the artist who brought him before us.

It is an axiom that every full-length portrait requires a curtain and a column, every half-length a table, every kit-kat a full face. But surely such rules betray barrenness of invention. Every good position cannot be said to have been exhausted. Why should not every portrait be treated as a part of an historical picture in which the sitter’s position and background and accessories produced the tone and feeling most suitable to his ordinary life? Raphael in his portrait of Leo the Tenth exhibits a faithful study of such subordinates. There is a prayer-book with miniatures, a bell on the table, and a mirror at the back of the chair reflecting the whole scene. One of Rembrandt’s most charming portraits is that of his mother cutting her nails with a pair of scissors.

Never suffer any artist to slur over or hide the hand. The hand is a feature full of beauty and individuality. Any one who has noticed how Vandyck studied and worked out its peculiarities, what beauty and expression he gave to it, will never undervalue its power as an exponent of personality again.

The portraits of men or women occupying prominent positions should always have their name and that of the artist on the back. If this had been done in times past, how many nameless portraits, now of little value, would be held in high estimation! From the time of Henry the Eighth to the time of Charles the First it was usual to insert in a corner the armorial bearings of the person represented. This did not, indeed, accurately identify the individual, but it made it easier to determine. There is a masterpiece of Vandyck’s in the National Gallery of England that goes by the name of “Gevartius.” But no one knows who Gevartius was. Here is an old man’s head made memorable for all time,—a head which would be thought cheap at $10,000, and which, if it were for sale, would attract connoisseurs from all parts of the civilized world, and it is without a name. How much more valuable and interesting it would be if its history were known! Therefore no feeling of modesty should prevent eminent characters from insuring the identity of their pictures. Let us imagine a picture of Abraham Lincoln and one of Professor Morse two hundred years hence, with the name attached in one case, and a mere tradition of identity in the other, and it will be easy to estimate the difference in value.

Americans have been accused of an undue taste for portraiture; the taste has its foundation in the character of the nation. It corresponds with that estimation of the personal worth of a man, and that full appreciation of individual independence, which form such important elements in our national character.




Amelia E. Barr