November 04, 2003

Related exhibition reveals artists' fascination with the human face as a window into the mind

: October 29, 2003


Casting Characters: Portraits and Studies of Heads
At the Getty Center, November 4, 2003–February 1, 2004

LOS ANGELES—The fascination of artists throughout history with the human face and what it reveals about personality is examined in the new exhibition Casting Characters: Portraits and Studies of Heads, at the Getty Center, November 4, 2003–February 1, 2004. The exhibition includes portraits, caricatures, and expressive drawn heads from the 16th through 19th centuries that document how artists over time have tried to capture the true essence of their subjects in various vivid facial expressions.

Drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh, Rembrandt Harmensz.van Rijn and other masters reveal the depth and complexity of human expressions, and the intricate skill needed to render them. The exhibition also features a number of recent Getty acquisitions, including Jean-Étienne Liotard’s Portrait of a Lady, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s Head of a Man Looking Up, and Georges Seurat’s Madame Seurat, the Artist’s Mother. Casting Characters complements the winter Premiere Presentation Jean-Antoine Houdon: Sculptor of the Enlightenment, which opens at the same time and features the work of the greatest portrait sculptor of the 18th century.

During the Renaissance, many artists believed that their greatest challenge was to capture what Leonardo da Vinci called a person’s moti mentali, or "motions of the mind." To do this, they studied the human face in all its variety, trying to master intricate facial expressions to convey personality and create effective characters in their narrative paintings and portraits. In order to master the face’s physical aspects, apprentices were drilled in drawing eyes, ears, and noses, and could be referred to any number of drawing manuals describing the correct proportions of the head. Most artists practiced drawing the human head and face diligently throughout their careers.

Da Vinci created a visual inventory of human facial features for his students to copy as exercises in portraying physiognomy. His Caricature of a Man with Bushy Hair (about 1495), one of numerous drawings of grotesquely deformed faces that he called visi monstruosi, is on view in the exhibition.

Some of the drawings on view were made as preparatory works for larger paintings. Artists often kept these drawings as part of a repertory of heads that could be referred to for future projects. The recently acquired drawing Portrait of a Lady (1758–1762) by Jean-Étienne Liotard is an example. This large, freely drawn sheet served as a model or préparation for a lost pastel portrait of an unidentified woman. Liotard kept this drawing in his studio after he completed the portrait in order to have a record of the composition once the final work was delivered to his patron. Here, as in all of his portraits, Liotard captured his sitter in a moment of informality, looking off to the right as though she were waiting for her actual posing session to begin.

Another recent acquisition, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s Head of a Man Looking Up (about 1750-1760), is a rapidly executed drawing that could have served as both a study of expression and of the rendering of light effects. The young man is shown awestruck, with his mouth half open and eyes staring skyward, and may have been meant to populate one of Tiepolo’s paintings showing a religious miracle. Tiepolo used white chalk on half of the man’s face to illuminate it from the side, leaving the other half in shadow.

Other drawings on view were made as independent works of art: portrait drawings, prized for their intimacy, were commissioned and collected from an early date, while so-called "fancy portraits," or idealized heads not meant to represent a specific individual, were sought after as personifications of human beauty or the human passions.

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Note to Editors: Images available upon request. For more information, the public can call 310-440-7300 or visit



Thea M. Page
Getty Communications Dept.

The J. Paul Getty Trust is an international cultural and philanthropic institution devoted to the visual arts that features the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Research Institute, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Getty Grant Program. The J. Paul Getty Trust and Getty programs are based at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

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