Leonardo is said to have amused Lisa del Giocondo with musicians and singers during his long period painting the Mona Lisa, putting both himself and his model into the right frame of mind to capture the most famous smile in the world. When some business hack inevitably writes Leadership Secrets of Leonardo da Vinci, I fully expect to see a trend towards more jesters and troubadours prowling the cubicles of corporate America.
But not every portrait goes so well. Paul Cézanne abandoned his Portrait of Ambroise Vollard after more than 140 sittings, leaving it forever unfinished. I am not altogether displeased with the shirt, was the way the artist summed up the experience.
According to the Grove Dictionary of Art, J.A.D. Ingres "found portrait painting such a strain that he could burst into tears in front of a sitter when he could not contrive a suitable pose". One commission which may have led to tears was his Portrait of Mme. Moitessier, begun in 1844 but not completed until 1856.
Indeed, Simone Cantarini, unable to get a suitable likeness of the Duke of Mantua, is said to have swallowed poison in his studio and died.
But one of the best examples of an artist planning on turning a portrait into a death march from the outset, rather than suffering from a simple case of painter's block, is John Singer Sargent's outdoor painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose: in order to capture the dusk light in the garden perfectly, he could only paint the children(!) for a few minutes every day. He painted late into the fall, and was eventually forced to put the not-nearly-completed work aside until spring.
The painting took a year to complete, by which time Sargent was referring to it as Darnation, Silly, Silly, Pose.
This article is copyright 2000 by John Malyon. Please do not republish any portion of this article without written permission.
John Malyon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org