Caesar, Cromwell, and Stephen Colbert

January 5, 2015 2:21 PM

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Humans have been represented through sculpture and painting since the dawn of civilization. Until the advent of photography and motion pictures, such art forms were the only way to preserve the physical likeness of someone for future generations. In the time of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, these sculptures were often highly stylized and an unreliable reflection of the actual appearance of their subject. It is thus unusual (and perhaps telling) that the man scholars believe to be the architect of the Great Pyramid, Hemiunu, is portrayed in a very realistic style, revealing his large, and flabby physique. During the classical Greco-Roman period, sculpture was generally more accurate and lifelike than paintings. Thus, our images of Julius Caesar and the Roman Emperors that followed him are derived largely from busts and statues. Beginning in the Renaissance, perspective and new artistic methods enabled more and more accurate portraits of not only rulers of states, but also the wealthy nobles who could afford to commission portraits. Many artists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries such as van Dyck, Rubens, and Rembrandt, are best known from painting these portraits that often were quite lifelike. When Oliver Cromwell, who overthrew Charles I in the English Civil War and ruled England as Lord Protector from 1653-58, sat for his portrait, he instructed the painter to "Use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me," from which we now derive the common figure of speech "warts and all." Because portraits were substantially faster, cheaper, and more portable than sculptures, they became much more common, and are the primary method by which we now know the faces of Kings, Nobles, Presidents, and even the upper middle class of 17th century Dutch and 19th century Americans.

The invention of photography in the mid-19th century spelled the beginning of the end of portraiture as the primary method to preserve our physical likenesses. Hundreds of soldiers sat for their portraits as they prepared to leave for the American Civil War, leaving them behind with wives and mother...

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