Faces across Time and Space: Portraiture and Intermediality in Europe and East Asia


Yizhou Wang, University of Heidelberg, Germany, wangyizhoucq@hotmail.com

Luis Alcalá-Galiano, Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, Spain, luis.alcala-galiano@usc.es


Faces in portraiture, as either visual or literary representations, shed light on significant facets of mental history in human society. This session concerns the portraiture practice during the transitional process from the early modern to the modern and contemporary periods. It attempts to call attention to and bring in discussion around a range of shared or intersected aspects in both European and East Asian portraiture. This session touches on the following subjects or issues: 

    • portraiture practice from the sixteenth to the twentieth century 
    • transcultural interactions between Europe and East Asia in portrait-making 
    • notions linked to portraiture and representation such as visibility and invisibility, public and private, literature and portrait (text and image) 
    • the intermediality or transmedia process between photography and painting or prints (etc.) 

The session includes four papers to be followed by a roundtable discussion led by John Klein and Klaas Ruitenbeek, who specialize in European and East Asian portraiture respectively. The session aims to encourage interdisciplinary dialogues about portrait-making in Europe and East Asia from a transcultural perspective. 

Speakers & Abstracts

Imagination, Intimacy, and Death: Peter Oliver (c.1589-1647) and the use of limnings in seventeenth-century England

Sophie Rhodes (University of Cambridge)

Portrait miniatures – known as limnings in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England – are a form of portraiture distinct from other types of likeness, both in their manner of creation and their function. Scholarship has demonstrated how Elizabethan miniatures, operating within a very specific court context, became dynamic and complex objects which could be used, held, touched, revealed or concealed, exchanged and worn, all of which distinguishes them from their larger scale counterparts. Seventeenth-century miniatures have, on the other hand, received less attention with regard to their function, and there has been a suggestion that, due to the stylistic influence of oil paintings on portrait miniature painting during this period, the miniature lost its uniqueness. 

This paper explores how portrait miniatures were used in the period, focusing on ideas of imagination, intimacy, and death. By looking at a number of case studies of miniatures by Peter Oliver, which draw on personal correspondence, visual evidence, and surviving miniatures, this paper will examine how the miniature was used in dynamics of love, death, and how they had the ability to spark the imagination. By looking at them as both accurate likenesses, and three-dimensional small objects, this paper seeks to show how miniatures remained apart from other forms of portraiture.


Where is the Lover’s Gift? Courtesan Portraiture of China and Intermediality from Late Imperial to the Republican Era

Yizhou Wang (Heidelberg University, Germany)

Mingji, the famous courtesan or elite prostitute, was a significant subject of Chinese portraiture, which flourished particularly in the late imperial Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1912) and the Republican era (1912-1949) before the institutional system of prostitution was officially banned. Chinese courtesan portraits have not been well researched in the field of portraiture studies. This paper scrutinizes this specific subject of portraiture. It focuses on the issues and agency of intermediality by juxtaposing and analyzing the courtesan portraits in different media, ranging from the Ming and Qing paintings including courtesans’ “real” portraits and non-representational “stand-in” self-portraits, the woodblock-printed manuals, e.g., Hundred Charming Beauties of Suzhou (published 1617), to the early twentieth-century studio photography albums, e.g., Photographs of Graceful Beauties of Shanghai (first published 1911), One Hundred Beauties of the Flowery Kingdom (published 1918).  
It calls attention to the long-standing crucial function of courtesan portraits as gifts for their lovers, and as the media of communication and affect. It argues that the shifts in the principal media of Chinese portraiture during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, particularly from painting to the newly advent photography, played an active role in changing the mechanism for producing and appreciating courtesan portraits, the literacy of courtesans, and the ways of communication between courtesans and their clients, and in reshaping their audiences and the performed personae of courtesan sitters in representations. It discusses how the performativity and characteristics of play or games in courtesan portraits were transformed along with the transitions of media against the Republican-era backdrop of facilitated transcultural encounters between China and the world. It also addresses the notions of body, pictorial continuity in the transmedia process, and the role of literature and press in times of visual transitions.



Forging a Real beyond Realism: Chae Yongsin and the Intervention of Photography in Early Twentieth Century Korean Portrait Painting

Haely H.Y. Chang (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)

How should portrait painting evolve in the era of photography? Korean artist Chae Yongsin (1850-1941) grappled with this question, selectively embracing and rejecting photography in his painting practices. As a commercial portraitist, Chae utilized photography as a basis for his portraits, especially in his sitters’ facial features. While scholarship focuses on his pursuit of newfound levels of verisimilitude, close observation reveals how he eschewed photographic realism as well, flattening the contours of the face and adhering to established painting conventions in depicting the body. This process of selective realism erased traces of temporal and spatial specificity from his portraits, imbuing them with a sense of timelessness.

Chae’s detailed renditions reflect their ritual purpose, as the portraits represented the ageless spiritual embodiment of the sitters rather than an ephemeral moment in reality. Chae’s liminal portraits were often enshrined in ancestral halls, worshipped by Confucian scholars and descendants of former bureaucrats alike. The significance of Chae’s portraiture lies in its theatrical appearance which functioned as a medium for emotional attachment and an ideological anchor with one’s ancestors. For this purpose, evoking an aura of permanence was a central concern. Amidst the disquiet of modernization, Westernization, and colonization, Chae’s portraits sought to alleviate the ontological precarity of his clientele who strove to reify their status as intellectuals, rooted in their lineage and literati identity. Chae’s dualistic portraits check our impulse to locate painting and photography in a teleological progression advancing towards greater degrees of realism. In grasping this unique role played by portraiture that evolved through this intermedial relationship, Chae aimed to keep his pictorial subjects alive across time and space.

When it Comes to Remembering…: Brief notes on the role of portraits in context

Luis Alcalá-Galiano (Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, Spain)

The history of humanity could be told as a journey or narrated as a story. By instinct, by necessity, by pleasure or for the sake of it, since the first awakening of its artistic consciousness, humanity has reproduced everything that was around it. And is there anything more common to all these stories and journeys than the face-subject? Regardless of the artistic medium, nor the historical moment nor the aesthetic theory that feeds each representation, when it comes to studying the portrait, one could say that, trapped both on the representative surface, we are witnesses to the story and the journey par excellence. There are many definitions of portrait, and many characteristics that shape it. One essential aspect of the portrait is its relationship with the photographic technique. What happened when it first appeared? How do they influence each other?

By means of a historical journey that combines a comparison between the two arts (painting and photography), this paper aims to provide a philosophical approach to the construction of each portrait. For it cannot be forgotten that in every portrait the will of the artist, the model and of course the gaze of the perpetual spectator come into play.


In Conversation: John Klein and Klaas Ruitenbeek

Discussion session led by John Klein (Department of Art History and Archaeology, Washington University in St. Louis) and Klaas Ruitenbeek (Asian Art Museum/Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Berlin).



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