ὅ παῖς καλός – Armitage and Ascroft

I’ve been talking a lot about the Greeks, but the ancient Romans also made enormous contributions to the classical tRAdition.  A new photo of Richard Armitage that emerged over the weekend put me in mind of the Roman tradition of portrait sculpture.  The classical Greeks were skilled and prolific sculptors – arguably far surpassing the later Romans in virtually all areas…except one:  portraits.  It wasn’t that the Greeks couldn’t generate realistic portraits, it was that they just weren’t interested.  I think that it has to do with a vast divide in ideologies between the Greeks and Romans.  To boil it down, the Greeks saw much of life as a quest to achieve ἀρετή (arête or excellence in English).  I’ll have more to say about Richard Armitage and ἀρετή at a later date, but suffice it to say now, that viewed through this lens, realism gave way to idealism for the Greeks in many artistic genres.

The Romans, in contrast, have been defined by many as centering themselves around the concepts of pietas (piety) and gravitas (gravity or severity)  If the Greeks were the great “out of the box” thinkers of the classical world, the Romans were the pragmatic doers. In its original role, portrait sculpture served as a visual means of keeping the pious Romans connected to the spirits of their departed ancestors, an important part of traditional Roman religion.  The earliest Roman portrait busts are thought to have been sculpted from wax “death masks” molded from the recently deceased’s features.  Not surprisingly, the results are realistic down to the wrinkle…a “warts and all” sculptural tradition.

"Veristic" Bust of an Old Man - Vatican Museum

“Veristic” Bust of an Old Man – Vatican Museum

As the Romans expanded out of Italy, into the wider Mediterranean world, amassing a huge territorial empire, the function of portrait sculpture also expanded to include realistic portraits of important public figures like the one of Julius Caesar below.  It is meant to be a realistic portrait, but also to show the power and importance of this individual.  This portrait represents Caesar in the mid 1st century BC (BCE) at about the age of 50…not a young man, but not old either.

caesar bust

Julius Caesar – Vienna, Austria

By the 2nd century AD (CE) we can see a very different style of portrait sculpture emerging.   After several hundred years of exposure to the Greek artistic aesthetic, some of it has clearly rubbed off on the Romans in this “portrait” of Antinous, the favorite of the Roman emperor Hadrian.  To be fair, Hadrian was a massive Hellenophile, Greece’s 2nd century sugar daddy, so the Greek influence is extremely pronounced here.  But Roman portraits from this period forward reflect a blending of the Romans desire for realistic portraiture with the Greek preference for an idealized look.


“Portrait” of Antinous – Louvre
Photo Credit: Wikimedia

So how does the latest Robert Ascroft portrait of Richard Armitage (below) fit in here?  The Romans would have loved modern photography for its ability to realistically portray the human face down to the last wrinkle, blemish and gray hair.  The Greeks would have loved Photoshop for its ability to make that all disappear and produce an idealized view.

Photo by Robert Ashcroft 2012 - Courtesy of richardarmitagenet.com

Photo by Robert Ascroft 2012 – Courtesy of richardarmitagenet.com

I can’t tell you if this image has been retouched – although I doubt that many professional images are released without some adjustments.  We see a mature man, not an idealized youth here, and for me, at least, the impact is a stunning blend of the realistic and ideal.  ὅ παῖς καλός indeed!

20 comments on “ὅ παῖς καλός – Armitage and Ascroft

  1. Servetus says:

    It has been heavily retouched … the missing chicken pox scar is the big clue.

    OK, I’m not reading this carefully now because I am SUPPOSED TO BE GRADING.

  2. Leigh says:

    The Hellenic writers, philosophers, and artists demonstrably valued “excellence” as developed by the individual, and their “portraits” reflect that ideal. The Roman notion of virtue and excellence was modeled on conformity to social values and usefulness to the state, religious observance rather than individual belief. I think the Greeks would see the ideal of the developed individual in the Ascroft portrait, the unimportant bits smoothed over and made to disappear (such as the chickenpox scar). I think the Romans would see a mature man possessed of gravitas, with enough of the marks of middle age and nobilitas to be a senator or a general. They would not care if the portrait were “warts and all” as long as it testified to the subject’s suitability to serve the state. All of which brings up the question, why were the subjects selected to be depicted? Did they want to be remembered, how and by whom? We can make some guesses as to why Ascroft photographed Richard as he has, but the motives may remain as mysterious as those of the ancients.

    • obscura says:

      That’s very well put…thanks Leigh. This is a matter of personal taste to some extent, but for me, the Greeks often idealize an image to a cookier cutter version while the Roman realism is not always particularly appealing from a purely aesthetic standpoint. I agree that Ascroft’s work captures the best of both sides of the classical tRAdition.

      • Leigh says:

        My personal taste seems aligned with yours. The earlier “severe” Hellenic works seem Barbie-ized to me, both exaggerated and sanitized into a cariacature of a human or a demigod, while the later works reflect more individual development. I prefer to look at the Roman portrait busts, even if they lack the classical notion of beauty. This reminds me that I need to send you the info about the museum in Sevilla.

  3. guylty says:

    That was really interesting, Obscura. Really enjoyed learning about the differences in Ancient Greek and Roman Portraiture there. You have explained it in a really handy way – and without succumbing to the temptation of judging the two different approaches… As for the Ascroft portrait – I am differing with Servetus here in thinking that it hasn’t been photoshopped “heavily”. Or maybe it has been done so well that I just don’t see it. But in any case – it is a beautiful portrait, although not really classically clean as your busts.
    Sorry for late reply 🙂 Only just catching up…

    • Servetus says:

      missing facial scars, flattening out of smile / laugh lines?

      • guylty says:

        Yes. You are both right. I guess I find that less “heavily” photoshopped, though, than other shots of his. His actor’s headshot for instance.

        • obscura says:

          That actor’s headshot is the one I was referring to also…amok, amok, amok. I really wish someone would replace it, but then I much prefer the craggy portraits of early Rome too. 🙂

          • guylty says:

            Ah, ok, you referred to the same image, bingo! That is what I find very obviously and heavily photoshopped. I am actually still fine with that image, despite its “artificiality”. And that’s because it is specifically an actor’s headshot. I actually wrote an *ooof* about that in pre-me+r times – if you are interested: http://guylty.tumblr.com/post/31127001194/ooof-of-the-day-this-is-a-long-overdue-ooof (Sorry for linking on your page – I know that is not good practice).

          • Servetus says:

            We probably have different thresholds for what constitutes “heavy” photoshopping. I would say that the head shot in question (not this pic) is conspicuously photoshopped. But this one is still pretty heavily shopped — just more subtly (they didn’t just erase the eye lines or forehead texture partout).

          • guylty says:

            Yes, I suppose we do. I am surprised at myself, actually, because I am a photoshop hater in my own practice. (And I just did 3 hours of that for a shoot I did yesterday -graaaah!) in thecase of the new Ascroft shop I find myself nearly approving of the post-production. As you said, the lines on the forehead and around the eyes were not completely erased but are only softened a bit. It’s a bit silly that they took out pock marks, but then again, not every photographer likes the “warts and all” approach…

          • obscura says:

            Link away – I’m a Philistine when it comes to correct blog practice 🙂 Form and function probably right? It is always really interesting to me to hear different people’s perspective on art of any kind. What is genius for one is complete garbage to another. Eye of the beholder I guess 🙂

          • guylty says:

            Yes, absolutely. It’s actually quite a tricky thing to deal with as a photographer. Did a shoot yesterday, and the pics that I found least successful were the ones that the client liked best… There you go.

    • obscura says:

      Glad I’m not telegraphing my preferences…I definitely have them 🙂

      I’ve looked at the Ascroft image more closely – I have absolutely no idea how Photoshop actually works, but upon closer inspection, (this blogging thing is extremely rigorous in that I’ve spent the last 1/2 hour paging through different images for comparison) compared to the majority of recent shots, there does seem to be significant smoothing of lines around the eyes especially. I’ll grant that a couple of months of rest following The Hobbit blitz could have made a difference, but probably not that much. What I really like about the image in the classical vein is that even with some “clean-up” there is enough “reality” left that no one will mistake this as an image of a 20 year old… My comparison image for retouching run amok is the 2009 promo image that is currently on IMDB…beautiful, but almost a waxen look to me.

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