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Art Through Time: A Global View

Portraits Compare: How Can We Represent the Intangible in Portraits?

Kuya-Shonin (Saint Kuya)

Kuya-Shonin (Saint Kuya)
Artist / Origin: Kosho (Japan, active late 12th–early 13th century)
Region: East Asia
Date: Kamakura Period, early 13th century
Period: 1000 CE – 1400 CE
Material: Wood
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions: H: 46 in. (117 cm.)
Location: Rokuharamitsuji Temple, Kyoto, Japan

The Thinker: Portrait of Louis N. Kenton

The Thinker: Portrait of Louis N. Kenton
Artist / Origin: Thomas Eakins (American, 1844–1916)
Region: North America
Date: 1900
Period: 1800 CE – 1900 CE
Material: Oil on canvas
Medium: Painting
Dimensions: H: 82 in. (208.3 cm.), W: 42 in. (106.7 cm.)
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, John Stewart Kennedy Fund

How can we represent the intangible in portraits?

Portraits often convey information about the identity of their subjects through tangible signs and symbols. Clothing, for example, might point to status, or props might indicate profession. Virtues or character are often represented through symbols. But some things are more difficult to represent. How, for instance, do we convey thought or the invisible sound of speech in a portrait? Kosho’s St. Kuya and Eakins’s Thinker offer two solutions.

Questions to Consider

  • Both Kosho and Eakins attempt to represent the unseeable in these portraits. What solution does each arrive upon and how successful do you think each is?
  • Why do you think these two artists chose to represent their subjects performing actions that have no visible form? What did they want to convey about their subjects?
  • Neither of these sitters commissioned his portrait. Under what circumstances was each made and how do you think this might have impacted the artist’s representational choices?

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Art Through Time: A Global View


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