Did you receive any of those wonderful family portraits as holiday cards this year? You know the ones, with mums and dads and kids all grinning at the camera in co-ordinated colors, all looking bigger than last year and (in the case of the kids) just a little more embarrassed to be there?
If you did and if you’re just now packing away the last of the holiday decorations, pause for a moment at those pictures and imagine them as part of one long continuous line of family portraits through art history. Because (and this might be hard to believe) our techniques for posing a successful family photo today derive in no small part from the painted group portraits of yesteryear.
Take Johann Zoffany’s portrait of the Lavie Children (c. 1770), which shows the seven siblings of an English family living in London. Zoffany (1733 – 1810) was born in Germany but moved to England soon after 1760, in search of fame and fortune. After an initial stint painting clock faces, he was soon being patronized by well-to-do families (in this case Germain Lavie, a successful lawyer) to create family snapshots.
Any painter or photographer working today will tell you that a group portrait presents practical challenges: it’s unlikely you’ll get young sitters to pose at the same time and, even if you do manage it, one will sulk, one will cry and one will need the bathroom as soon as you put pencil to paper. Most likely, Zoffany had to pose the Lavie children individually, though he manages to do this without losing the sense of an integrated group in the final painting (there is nothing stilted about the way the children are arranged).
While integrated, the most unusual and engaging thing here is the way the artist affords each of the seven little people their unique sense of identity. This picture brims with youthful energy because Zoffany has not engaged the children in a staged communal activity. So there’s seven-year-old Germain teetering on top of a seesaw, waving his hat. His energetic pose suggests the stridence common in rough-and-tumble little boys. Then there’s Thomas, younger, anchoring the seesaw with a calmer seated pose, pointing out and looking up to his brother’s admirable balancing prowess. Oldest daughter Maria shows a steady hand and maternal streak in her support of baby Emilia. The middle girl Sarah, on the other hand, is more distracted as she pets a springing spaniel. Finally there’s John on the right, a mature type readying a fishing pole while his little sister Frances grabs at his catch.
In order to unify this rambunctious group, Zoffany uses a series of subtle sight lines to create flow and cohesion. For example, the children’s limbs in the Maria-Emilia, John-Frances and Sarah-spaniel sub-groups create ring shapes and focus. Thomas’s and Germain’s outstretched and elevated arms lead our eyes into the picture. The children are ranged loosely along parallel diagonal lines that are also echoed in the seesaw and river bank, aiding our logical impression of the scene.
Any bog-standard photography website offering tips on how to pose a good group picture reveals just how good Zoffany was: arrange your subjects close together, co-ordinate their clothing, think about background and lighting, get some genuine smiles and let the kids come up with their own poses. But even with such useful guidelines available (let’s be brutally honest here), some holiday card groupings still end up looking rigid and artificial, with stiff-backed rows of tall and small people smiling with strain into the lens.
Zoffany’s picture might just be a rare case where a painting has managed to outstrip the technology of photography. He’s been able to gather a string of unique and sparkling personalities, giving each room to breathe and blossom on the canvas – something that’s surprisingly difficult to achieve in a photographic portrait. Maybe next year, I’ll look into making a photo-collage card…