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UNIQUELY AND DISTINCTIVELY HIS OWN - Ali Sethi



Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said that a man’s manners are a mirror in which he shows his portrait and there can be no better way to depict this than in a portrait. I most ardently and absolutely adored the mood, the melody and the melancholy in this portrait of Ali Sethi by painter Salman Toor.

Ali is a man of many dispositions and to capture an artist and a musician and a poet and a writer onto a canvas is as tough as apprehending the soul of a genie in a bottle, and both you and I know that many things are possible, that in certain instances the impossible can be made possible too, but this is a deed that is impossible, as the genie is himself quite the magician who scatters his own sparkle on the populace. What's more? Because of Ali, I have swiftly grown to admire Salman for the many influences he reflects right from Frida Kahlo to the Pre-Raphaelites, from Claude Monet to Lucian Freud, yet engraving a spot for himself that is uniquely and distinctively his own. 

I found something deeper being sparked off in me when I first saw this portrait of Ali that my dear friend Rakshanda Jalil had liked on Ali’s wall. It stayed with me since, and this parallel of the genie and the bottle, and paint and the canvas kept playing hide and seek with me, and I read one night that every portrait that is painted with feeling is quite a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. That the sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. That it is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself. Those words appeared to fit Salman’s work quite like a glove.

I excavated a little and found essays on portraiture from old masters mainly in some books I had and at The Met Museum. Sadly, nothing much has been written on the art in the recent times. So drawing from them it was evident that a portrait is typically defined as a representation of a specific individual, such as the artist might meet in life. A portrait does not merely record someone’s features, however, but says something about who he or she is, offering a vivid sense of a real person’s presence. The traditions of portraiture in the West extend back to antiquity and particularly to ancient Greece and Rome, where lifelike depictions of distinguished men and women appeared in sculpture and on coins. After many centuries in which generic representation had been the norm, distinctive portrait likenesses began to reappear in Europe in the fifteenth century. This change reflected a new growth of interest in everyday life and individual identity as well as a revival of Greco-Roman custom. The resurgence of portraiture was thus a significant manifestation of the Renaissance in Europe.


One of the hallmarks of European portraiture is a sense of reality, an apparent intention to depict the unique appearance of a particular person. Each portrait is thus meant to express individual identity, but as Erwin Panofsky recognised, it also “seeks to bring out whatever the sitter has in common with the rest of humanity.” This second aspect of portraiture comes across in the considerable conservatism of the genre: most portraits produced in Renaissance and Baroque Europe follow one of a very small range of conventional formats. The profile view, which was favoured in ancient coins, was frequently adopted in the fifteenth century. The three quarter face, which allows for greater engagement between sitter and viewer, was also widely favoured. This format places the sitter in a simply characterised interior, with a horizontal element like a windowsill at the bottom and a glow of light in the left background. Italian painters at the turn of the sixteenth century embraced and refined this formula.

The conventional aspects of portraiture ensure that each example will bear some resemblance to the next, and yet this general similarity makes the distinctive qualities of each one the more salient. Sometimes the sitter’s beauty or demeanour is emphasised for example with luxuriant curls and a straightforward gaze. In other examples, a magnificent costume highlights the sitter’s wealth and fashionable taste. Other portraits suggest a sitter’s profession or interests by including possessions and attributes that characterise him as, for example, a humanist author, an accomplished sculptor, or an impassioned preacher. In addition to these rather public aspects of identity, portraits may also suggest the sitter’s inner psychology or state of mind. Hints of personality are especially evident in seventeenth-century portrayals of less exalted persons.

In addition to recording appearances, portraits served a variety of social and practical functions in Renaissance and Baroque Europe. Miniatures were given as gifts of intimate remembrance, while portraits of rulers asserted their majesty in places from which they were absent. In courtly settings, portraits often had diplomatic significance.

A portrait was often commissioned at a significant moment in someone’s life, such as betrothal, marriage, or elevation to an office. The making of a portrait typically involved a simple arrangement between artist and patron, but artists also worked on their own initiative, particularly when portraying friends and family. These portraits sometimes display a sense of affection, informality, or experimentation unusual in commissioned works. In a nutshell an oil portrait lives forever! It symbolises the value and worth of the individual in society. To capture a loved one, or to honour a special individual on canvas, is a timeless human need and expression. Today, portraiture is more important than ever in a world becoming less and less sensitive to the human condition, the more important portraiture becomes for preserving our humanity, culture, care and love.




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