In paintings with scores of 'subjects', how did artists recall each subject's appearance?

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?

In some cases, like The Old Burgtheater, they would just picked out people they knew for models in addition to some of the actual attendees. In addition, if the subject were famous enough, there would be other paintings to guide you.

I know that most of the group scenes by the Dutch masters were formal portraits of the people involved, all of whom sat for the artist (though not usually at the same time). The Night Watch, for instance, includes likenesses of the people in the group Rembrandt was painting.

Getting people to sit was relatively easy: it was a big deal to be in a painting, since it was the only way to preserve your likeness. Even the emperor might be persuaded to show up to sit for a few hours.

As suggested above, the painting might have been completed over a very long period of time, with various subjects sitting separately at different times.

In my Art History class, we were shown one nice painting of a vase full of flowers – a whole bunch of different kinds of flowers. It was pointed out in lecture that, after the painting was completed and unveiled, people noticed that the various kinds of flowers in the vase were in the habit of blooming at very different times of the year.

Thus, assuming the artist didn’t paint all the flowers just from memory, he could not have posed all those flowers in one vase all at the same time. He presumably did the painting a little at a time, over at least a year, adding in the different flowers as they came into bloom.

They could also have done fairly quick sketches and used those to help with their memory.

Where there are lots of identifiable faces, this is usually the answer. Most artists painting such large paintings would have made hundreds of preparatory sketches anyway. That would be partly in order to get the composition right. But they would often also produce individual sketches of every head. So, for example, for David’s Coronation of Napoleon, there survives this oil sketch of Mme de la Rochefoucauld, who was one of Josephine’s train bearers. That wouldn’t have required numerous sittings. Indeed, a big part of the skill of the more successful portrait painters was minimising the time they had the sitter in front of them while nevertheless being able to produce a highly finished portrait. The artist might even sell the sketch to the sitter once the main painting was finished.

The common technical term for “preparatory sketch” is a study

Yes they did Studies and put on the heads as they were needed, then at the unveiling the subjects would say “i;m only paying half , you can only see half my face” etc etc…oh the artist life!

Thanks for all your replies. Much appreciated.

Sounds like "preparatory sketches’ (or ‘studies’) are what’s necessary. I am not disputing that but still wonder how that would work for scenes like the Old Burgtheater where I assume that the audience could not be known (or studied) in advance. What Reality Chuck said with respect to that work - that the artist used people he knew for models - makes sense.

Regarding Chuck’s comment on Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, I’ll point out that his contemporary, Frans Hals, seemed not too concerned about being absolutely accurate in his depictions of group scenes. Specifically, in his ‘Meagre Company’, a number of the faces appear to be of the same person. That’s always bothered me.

I think the “night watch” was paid for by the people appearing in it (and hence my comment on the disputes about how much to pay despite some customers faces not being entirely visible)…generic crowd scenes, well an artist might have existing sketches etc and just general people off the street he used. Leonardo is said to have run after interesting looking people in the street to draw them and some appear in his work latter on etc.

Also, I’m not sure if you know how quickly it’s possible for a good artist to sketch a rendering of someone, enough to later be able to paint them recognizeably - like, less than a minute a person, probably, just capturing the rough details of nose, mouth, eyes, face shape. Look at these studies by Rembrandt - how long do you think they took him? Look at the economy of line, yet the amount of recognizeable detail captured.