Portraits and the Artist

Why didn´t Michelangelo do portraits? Since he was such a great artist, wouldn’t it have been easy for him to make beautiful busts of his friends and patrons? Bernini did, Rodin did. Houdon´s portraits of Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin in the Louvre in Paris are unforgettable. You can just see those men, as if they were alive.

Michelangelo made ideal people, figures out of his imagination. They are man and woman in the abstract. They take us away from the particular circumstances of our time and world and make us reflect on mankind, not any individual. And as ideals, his beautiful figures are governed not by the accidents and irregularities of nature but by the mysterious laws of design. Beauty.

Portraits can be a terrible restriction for the artist. He has to copy his subject when he would like to go off here and there on his own, following his fancy. Then he hands his finished portrait to the customer and gets objections: “Can´t you make him look less morose?” “That´s him all right but he never smiled like that.” “She´s not going to like this because she hates blue.”

But most artists never had much choice: portrait painting and busts have always been their daily bread. Even Michelangelo had to model a giant bronze portrait of Pope Julius. “What should I put in your hand, Holiness?” he asked the Pope. “A book?”
“A book? I don’t know anything about books, “ said the grumpy Pope. “Give me a sword.”
It’s a big pity the statue was melted down for a cannon because now we’ll never see how Michelangelo fashioned his ideal man out of that raw material.

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