Harrington Mann, Portrait of Lieutenant General, Sir Sam Hughes (1918).
Every once in a while an artist becomes more popular for what they write than for what they paint. I think Harrington Mann (1864-1937) falls into that category. Although during the later half of his life he was a popular portrait painter, his 1933 book The Technique of Portrait Painting may have saved him from ending up a mere footnote in the history of art.
Harrington Mann was born Glasgow, Scotland in 1864. His early training as an artist began in Glasgow as well, at the Glasgow School of Art. It was not an experience he fondly recalled later on, partly due to the time he was forced to spend on cast drawing – a common revulsion among many art students of that generation.1 From there he moved to London in order to study at the Slade School, under the popular French expatriate Alphonse Legros. At the time, all budding young artists had their sights set on Paris and, perhaps because of Legros’ influence, Mann ended up studying with Gustave Boulanger and Jules Joseph Lefebvre at the Académie Julian. While still in his early twenties, he won a two year traveling scholarship to study in Florence and Rome.
Upon returning to England, Mann initially settled in Yorkshire where his work focused on paintings of the local farming and fishing villages. During this time he joined a group known as The Glasgow Boys. This group’s focus was two-fold: disgust with the then popular Scottish art scene, headed in Edinburgh, and a desire to push the boundaries of Naturalism and Impressionism.
Harrington Mann, Boy and Black Pigs (1888),
During the mid-1890s he became a fairly successful portrait painter, so much so that he was able to eventually move to London in 1900.
By the early twentieth-century he was a respected portrait painter on both continents, with homes and studios in both London and New York. His fame culminated in 1933 when the J. B. Lippincott Company published his book, The Technique of Portrait Painting: A Complete & Detailed Guide to the Handling Composition & Lighting of Portraits in Oils With a Comprehensive Survey of the Methods of Portrait Painters of Today & of the Past. The annals of Sight-Size give prominent place to Mann because of that book. He died in 1937.
Harrington Mann, Portraits of Pamela and Norman Woolworth (1937).
The following is a selection of annotated quotes from Mann’s Technique of Portrait Painting.2
Mann’s focus was nature, even if he allowed some intentional deviations from it:
“While the trend of modern painting is, perhaps, to get as far as possible from nature, the master will know exactly how far he can go. How far can one wander into the realms of imagination and disregard nature and yet be a painter of portraits? I am afraid the limit is clearly marked. There are laws which one cannot transgress.”
“Slight exaggeration may be permissible in searching out the salient points of the physical character in the portrait of a man. There may be slight smoothing down of unpleasant or over-pronounced features in the case of a woman; there are in other words slight deviations from the exact truth, but these are dangerous adventures and one has to come back to accuracy of feature and color if one expects to produce a satisfactory portrait. Therefore, any wild departure from nature of the modern schools has little place in the portrait painter’s art.”
Harrington Mann, Portrait of Francis Howard (1924) and Portrait of Jinny Carpenter (1911).
During Mann’s career the tide of art shifted from representation to the abstract. This prompted Mann to defend nature and visual accuracy:
“[P]utting portraiture in the category of biography – where it really ought to be placed – there is ample scope for straightforward representation of life – individual life which is never exactly repeated and, therefore, every new portrait is a new creation . . . Let us not be afraid of making frankly a concise and exact record of a living human face and it will always be something new. There never were and never can be two faces exactly alike. There is no repetition in nature. The painter has a new experiment before him in every portrait.”
“The relationship between painter and subject is first hand. The inspiration of the human subject is transmitted at once to the canvas of the painter. It is almost like a transfusion of blood, direct from one life to another, from the living subject to the living canvas. It is an easy conclusion to make that if the canvas is worked on only before the living model it will have a certain vitality that is apt to be lost if there is much retouching when the sitting is over.”
Harrington Mann, A Family Portrait of Four Children (1915).
“Likeness is the beginning and the end of a portrait.”
Despite those comments, Mann was not opposed to using photography. Furthermore, he occasionally contradicts himself. “Exactitude in the delineation of features is compulsory but all ‘incorrectness’ is perfectly permissible if it tends only towards spontaneity and aplomb.” Of course we must remember that the art gods of portraiture at the time were Sargent, Zorn, and De László.
Harrington Mann, Lesson Time (1908).
Mann did have a profound understanding of the big-look, also known as seeing the whole:
“Remember that exact likeness, which you must get, does not depend on elaborate exactitude of detail. It depends on the exact placing of the features, the relative placing and spacing of the eyes, the nose and the mouth. The nose, as I have said before, is the key note. The eyes follow and the mouth comes last.”
Leonardo da Vinci wrote that “the mirror is your teacher.” Mann agreed but was aware that one’s eye could tire of that image, just as it did with the naked eye:
“A fresh eye is like a second horse in the hunting field. However, do not ask your mirror too often what he thinks. Keep him well in reserve and only call on him for his advice as seldom as possible, for he too will get tired and indifferent, and will then tell you nothing.”
“The larger the mirror the better so long as you can move it round handily on one of your easels. If you place it at a distance of, let us say eight feet from the canvas, and observe the reflection from the same distance, that is, standing beside the canvas, you will see the painting sixteen feet away. This is a means of getting a distant view, and is very useful, especially if the space in the studio is restricted.”
“Your portrait ought, however, to be ‘right’, no matter from what distance you look at it, but the best working distance is about nine to twelve feet. The physical exertion of walking back and forward to the canvas all day is considerable but you cannot avoid that unless you are working on a small scale drawing or painting. A portrait ought to be seen at a sufficient distance to enable you to take in with your eye the entire canvas. Therefore the larger the canvas the further you must stand from it.”
The diagram of Mann’s recommended portrait setup. Notice that his arrangement shows the easel and model on a slight angle to each other. As long as your viewing position is at a distance which keeps your sight line perpendicular to the canvas plane this would cause no visual distortion.
He often discusses Sight-Size in his book, though never mentioning it by name.
“I like to have my canvas as close to my sitter as possible, on the same plane, and the head of the sitter and of the portrait at the same height. The shorter the distance your memory has to carry your impression the better. You are after all painting from memory. Every look you take at your sitter has to be held by your memory till it is recorded on the canvas. The shorter the lapse of time you employ, the more vital is your impression. Therefore your canvas should be as close to your sitter as possible.”
Mann also gives us a clue as to why there are no photographs of Sight-Size being practiced in the ateliers of Paris:
“In the crowded ateliers in Paris of course all this was impossible. We had to sit or stand close by the easel. If you stepped back you would crash into the next student. We always carried a little pocket mirror to help to overcome this difficulty.”
Likeness does not depend upon detail, all the more when painting in Sight-Size:
“. . . minute detail is not essential to a good likeness. Take, for instance, the painting of an eye as seen from a distance of twelve feet. It is entirely different from a ‘close-up’ and yet it can be just as correct without the meticulous drawing of eyelids and eyelashes which, of course, you cannot see at that distance.”
Detail and selection are often intertwined:
“Selection plays a very important part in all painting. The painter who finds himself before nature without a sense of selection is in just as bad a fix as the man who has no sense of color or design. . . Leaving out the unnecessary is an essential part in this sense of selection.”
In the chapter on equipment, Mann provides us with another description of Sight-Size, as well as a a photograph and a diagram of his setup:
“An interesting and instructive experiment is to take an empty frame – preferably the frame you are going to use for your portrait – or, of course, a second frame of the same size is still better, and frame your sitter. This requires two extra easels sufficiently far apart with the frame placed between them. Both easels are placed at such height so that the frame is at the proper level.”
“It is a matter of greatest interest to place the canvas side-be-side with an empty picture frame. The painter should stand at a point equidistant from the canvas and the frame, in order to equalize the scale. Many comparative observations can thus be made.”
Another thing Mann thoroughly understood was the primacy of sight over knowledge, at least to a portrait painter:
“To see correctly one must for the time being disassociate the meaning of the object and concentrate solely on the shapes and color. A face ought not to be considered a face, an eye or a nose as an eye or a nose. To be conscious all the time that a nose is a nose will make it harder for you to draw that nose correctly.”
“You will see that you will paint an eye more correctly if you forget it is an eye because otherwise you will use your preconceived idea of an eye,- a composite eye drawn from your impressions of a thousand eyes. But it is one individual eye you are painting and different from all eyes you have ever seen before. Therefore, if you merely consider it as some queer arrangement of shapes in varying colors you will get an eye so characteristic that it could only belong to one person in the world and the same is true of any other feature.”
Harrington Mann, Portrait of Charles John Gibb, Lecturer in Pathological Anatomy.
“Your anatomical knowledge of a face or a figure, however, may help you later on from making silly mistakes in actual drawing. But this knowledge should be used only in a corrective sense.”
“This system of disregarding what things are and only considering what things look like should be carried in your mind all the time.”
“The optical description of any object is conveyed instantaneously to the brain. The painter has to catch the impression almost before it reaches the brain or at least arrest it there long enough only to determine what the shapes are before handing it over for translation into a table or a chair. The ordinary eye knows it is a chair immediately but the painter has to find out why it looks like a chair.”
“It is very hard to teach the layman this point of view because he cannot see. He makes use of his eye only in order to live. The painter makes use of his eye to see the beauty of the world. The first use is essential, the further use is only essential to the man who wants to do more than merely exist. To him the world is an enchanted palace.”
1Too few ever really understood that their eventual success was due in no small part to that early training with casts. As such, their own students missed the benefit and thus helped usher in abstract and non-representational art.
2All quotes come from Harrington Mann’s The Technique of Portrait Painting: A Complete & Detailed Guide to the Handling Composition & Lighting of Portraits in Oils With a Comprehensive Survey of the Methods of Portrait Painters of Today & of the Past, J. B. Lippincott Company, © 1933. All attempts at finding the current copyright holder failed. Someone needs to reprint Mann’s book!
There is no doubt that Harrington Mann practiced Sight-Size. He wrote about it and it shows in his work. You can learn to see through Sight-Size too. Find out how through my book, The Sight-Size Cast. To get your copy, or to simply learn more about the book, see here.