Ciphers, signs and self-portraits: How artists of the past signed their paintings
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Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid
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From cave paintings to drawings of the great Pushkin: History of a portrait profile

The profile, which in the modern world is associated primarily with self-presentation in the Internet space, in its original meaning of a half-turn, a silhouette, is almost the same age as the fine art. The appearance of a profile portrait, as well as the decline in its popularity, is most directly related to the main stages of the development of human culture.
The ancestors of modern man knew how to create images of their own kind in the Paleolithic period. The surviving cave paintings show scenes from the life of a caveman, with animals and people, as a rule, painted in profile.
In ancient Egypt, a man’s head was also portrayed from a side angle, while the body was turned towards the viewer. The Assyrians and artists of the early periods of civilization of Ancient Greece adhered to the same rules. The fact is that drawing a profile required significantly less skills from a master than using other angles, nevertheless allowing to achieve similarity with the original and realize the goals of the work.

One of the most famous ancient profile portraits was “Parisian”, a fresco from the Knossos palace in Crete, depicting a young girl. Called the pioneer of Minoan civilization by Arthur Evans, Parisian shows the style in which the artists of Ancient Crete worked.

With the gradual improvement of the skills of ancient masters, other ways of depicting a person appeared, but they continued to turn to profiles quite often – especially when minting coins. In the manufacture of cameos, jewelry that dates back to the fourth century BC and are a bas-relief made on precious or semiprecious stones, they also often resorted to a profile image, which was easier to produce with maximum preservation of similarity and with less risk of spoiling the stone in case of failure.

The profiles of antiquity can be divided into “Greek” and “Roman”: the former are distinguished by a single line of the forehead and nose, the latter by the aquiline, hooked nose. The fall of the Roman Empire and the subsequent times of the medieval decline in the visual arts led to the loss by artists of drawing skills in general and profile images in particular. But it was the coins of antiquity that helped to revive the portrait genre in Europe after a millennium. They became a model for artists of the new cultural era.

The beginning of the Renaissance era is associated with the appeal to the portrait of a person, both pictorial and psychological. The artist became interested in the personality of the one who appeared on the canvas, and attention to man as a creator, creator, brought the image of a man to the fore. According to the old, medieval canons, the figures of Christ, the Madonna and the saints, to whom prayers should be directed, should have focused all their attention on themselves. Eye contact between the image in the picture and the person standing in front of her was achieved by the image of these figures in full view. Those who could not be the addressee of such a religious conversion were drawn in profile. So traditionally depicted the face of Judah in paintings with the plot of the Last Supper, they did the same with the images of demons.

The paintings of the early Renaissance were often created by order of wealthy connoisseurs of art, and therefore on the canvases of this period there are profiles of such donors, donors – as a rule, humbly bowing before the figure of a saint, but still occupying a prominent place in the composition. According to tradition, male donors are placed on the right hand of the saint, women on the left.
Artists gradually brought more and more realism into their works, moving further away from the traditions of medieval painting.

Persons for secular portraits painted for a long time in profile – in this way, artists relatively easily achieved similarities. One of the earliest portraits contains the image of the French king John II the Good. Often the artist was ordered posthumous portraits for the family of the deceased.

But with the development of artists’ skills, the emergence of many schools and with an increasing interest in paintings, the canons changed. Increasing importance was given to the correct transfer of the essence, personality of characters, paintings became more voluminous. If at the beginning of the 15th century the background for the figure was plain and flat, already in the second half the landscape appears in the background, the picture acquires depth, a perspective arises.

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