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Setting and Symbolism
  The symbols with which someone chooses to be pictured and the setting within which someone’s portrait is placed can tell us much about that person’s character and aspirations, how they like to be seen and/or the time in which they lived.
 
  Symbols
  All of the portraits in this section feature symbols which can tell us more about the person or people pictured. For example, we know that Thomas Barker is an artist, because he is pictured with his brushes and an easel and we know that Napoleon I must be a ruler of some sort, because he is wearing a red velvet and ermine robe and a ‘crown’ of laurel leaves. Other symbols require some more background information before we can understand them; their meaning is no longer as obvious to us as they would have been at the time. For example, we need to know that wearing coral beads was thought to protect children against sickness in order to see their significance in Child with a Coral. Likewise, we need to know that King Louis XV of France and his predecessor King Louis XIV styled themselves as ‘the Sun King’. For this reason they identified themselves with Apollo, god of the sun, who is pictured in his chariot on the back wall of the room in Madame de Ventadour with Portraits of Louis XIV and his Heirs. Mythology can often play a part in portraits; in the portrait of Queen Elizabeth I the moon on her bodice represents Diana, goddess of the hunt and of chastity, and is a way of showing Elizabeth’s power and her feminine virtues.
  Images of Power
  Images of power can also be constructed from pose and symbols. In the case of the Emperor Napoleon, he has borrowed images of powerful people and institutions from the past, such as the orb (symbol of kings), the laurel leaves (worn by the ancient Roman emperors) and the sceptre decorated with the imperial eagle. Likewise, the reference to the King of France as the Sun King in Madame de Ventadour with Portraits of Louis XIV and his Heirs links him to classical mythology. It helps him to communicate a sense of natural superiority and the divine right of kings to rule over their subjects. Henry VIII marks his royal superiority through his richly decorated dress and jewels but it is his dominance of the painting that tells the viewer that this ageing king is still a great and powerful ruler.
  Setting
  The setting in which a person is placed can give us many clues as to their personality or how they would like to be seen. The drapery in the portraits of Marie de Raet, Napoleon I and Queen Charlotte has a multiple role; as well as revealing the painters' skill in depicting different materials and playing a role in the composition, it adds a sense of elegance, wealth and luxury. The diagonal of the curtain with its folds in the portrait of Queen Charlotte also leads the eye to the beautiful and, no doubt, expensive lace cuff in the bottom right-hand corner. The curtain and column behind the upright figure of Marie de Raet emphasise her vertical pose and monumental surroundings. On the other hand, the Child with a Coral and Thomas Barker have far more modest settings, presumably as befits their status. Priscilla Jones, painted by Thomas Barker, appears all the more delicate through being framed by two huge columns and surrounded by grey statues. Thomas Barker went on to marry Priscilla Jones and this setting perhaps betrays his affection for her by providing a contrast between her softness and the austere surroundings.
 
Discussion Points:
  • Do people still have status symbols these days? What sort of things are they in modern times?
  • Think about the image of Napoleon, where he is styling himself on a Roman emperor. Are there things still in use today which hark back to a very long time ago and make that person or institution seem important? And are there occasions now when people wear very traditional clothes or carry traditional objects? Clues: Parliament, Coronations, Wedding ceremonies, University Graduation.
  • Give the class body outlines labelled with the names of different professions (e.g. king, teacher, butcher, bishop) and ask the children to draw on their particular attributes or ‘props’.
    Related Portraits
   
Thomas Barker Self Portrait at an  Easel  circa 1794
Thomas Barker
Self Portrait at an
Easel

circa 1794
 
   
Anne-Louis Girodet Napoleon I in Coronation Robes after 1804
Anne-Louis Girodet
Napoleon I in
Coronation Robes

after 1804
 
   
Unknown Portrait of a Child with a Coral 1636
Unknown
Portrait of a Child with
a Coral

1636
 
   
French School Madame de Ventadour  circa 1715 to 1720
French School
Madame de Ventadour
circa 1715 to 1720
 
   
English School, Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, circa 1590
English School
Portrait of Queen
Elizabeth I

circa 1590
 
   
After Hans Holbein the Younger, Henry VIII, circa 1560
After Hans Holbein
the Younger

Henry VIII
circa 1560
 
   
Anthony Van Dyck  Marie de Raet 1631 Philippe le Roy 1630
Anthony Van Dyck
Marie de Raet 1631
Philippe le Roy 1630
 
   
Johann Zoffany Queen Charlotte 1766
Johann Zoffany
Queen Charlotte
1766
 
   
Thomas Barker Priscilla Jones circa 1796
Thomas Barker
Priscilla Jones
circa 1796