In paintings with scores of subjects, and who are ‘posed’ for only a brief period of time, how did/does the artist recall each subject’s appearance when painting them?
To illustrate what I am talking about, please take a peek at this magnificent work (The Coronation of Alexander III of Russia by Georges Becker) or this spectacular piece by Klimt (The Old Burgtheater). Both include detailed depictions of dozens, and probably closer to hundreds, of different individuals. It’s also clear that for both paintings, the artist would have had only a very limited amount of time to study his subjects, let alone paint them, before they went their separate ways. How did they do it?
I can think of a couple of possibilities. For one, I suppose, that except for anyone who was famous or well-known, the artist may have simply taken ‘artistic license’ and made up their appearance!
Perhaps a photograph was taken of the scene and was used later by the artist to refresh his mind or maybe even to paint/copy directly from the photograph. Still, there are plenty of paintings done before the era of photography where many distinct physiognomies are shown. This detail* from David’s huge and densely populated Coronation of Napoleon, from 1807, is a good example. The faces are all unique (and, presumably well-known enough to have demanded they be rendered accurately).
(*For those interested, here is the full painting)
Another possibility is that after the event portrayed in the painting was over (i.e. after the coronation, after the theatre performance, etc.), the artist met with the people in the scene to be painted and painted them at that time. Admittedly, that would have been a huge, and probably impossible, logistical challenge.
So how does an artist paint a scene with scores of subjects, ‘posed’ for only a brief period of time?