Why portraits look so like the artist

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Portraits of famous people tend to look like the painters because the artists were all simply depicting themselves, according to new research.

Computer-aided comparisons made between a series of portraits of British monarchs and the self-portraits of the artists who painted them prove that there has always been a hidden agenda in top-level portraiture, argues the art historian Simon Abrahams.

After lengthy research and the examination of hundreds of famous paintings from new angles, Abrahams has launched his contentious theory through his website, ArtScholar.org. He believes it is clear that many portraitists, painters who were often doing this kind of work just for money, chose to assert themselves by reproducing their own facial characteristics within those of their powerful sitters.

The practice, which Abrahams has called 'face fusion', is evident as early as the 1600s in the work of Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver, who both painted Queen Elizabeth I, and it continues to this day. He even offers visual evidence that the portrait of the current Queen completed in 2001 by Lucian Freud bears more than a passing resemblance to Freud himself.

'These royal images were never intended by the artist as historical records of an actual sitter, but as depictions of the artist's alter ego. No doubt they pretended otherwise to their patrons but they, and their peers, knew better; the evidence is overwhelming,' he writes.

Abrahams's argument is made most strongly by looking at an engraving of William III by the artist Sir Godfrey Kneller alongside his near-identical self-portrait, by Sir Joshua Reynolds's portrait of George IV and his self-portrait, or perhaps by looking at Sir Peter Lely's portrait of James II next to the artist's version of his own features.

'At least two contemporaries of Peter Lely complained that the faces in his portraits resembled each other,' writes Abrahams, 'one even suggesting that he was too fond of studying his own features.'

While a couple of art historians have noted similarities between painters and the painted in the past, Abrahams points out, the issue has always been either ignored or brushed over by academia. 'The assumption has been that there were some painters who were good at painting the world "as it is" and then those who were "poetic" and painted what was in their mind,' Abrahams told The Observer

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