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Dibutades, the inventor of portraiture - Amazing Women of the Ancient World
421    Dibyendu Banerjee    23/11/2023

The origin of things has always fascinated people and the art of painting is not an exception to it. Although different cultures from all around the world offered their own stories, those are basically based on myths and legend, improved with time. However, it is generally agreed that the art of painting began with someone outlining another person’s shadow. In his encyclopedic work Naturalis Historia, Gaius Plinius Secundus (AD 23/24 – AD 79), also called Pliny the Elder, a Roman natural philosopher, author and also a naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, who spent most of his spare time studying, writing and investigating natural and geographic phenomena in the field, admitted that various cultures claimed the deed without certainty mentioning the name who did it first. However, while tracing the origins of clay modelling, he mentioned a potter’s daughter from Corinth, who marked the contour of the head of a young man on a wall, following the shadow produced by a lamp’s light. Although Pliny the Elder did not name the young woman, in the popular story, she commonly appears as Dibutades, daughter of Butades, the potter.

dibutades the inventor of portraiture

Pliny the Elder

According to the story, long ago in the city of Corinth in Ancient Greece, a young maid named Dibutades was in love with a local youth, who was about to leave the country on a long voyage at sea for an uncertain period. Prior to his departure, when he came to see his lady love, Dibutades took a piece of charcoal and marked the contour of her lover’s head on a wall to preserve his image, following the shadow produced by a lamp’s light. She was saddened for the imminent departure of her lover and did the job on her impulse, for her satisfaction, for remembrance, so that she can look at the contour on the wall in the absence of her lover. Later, Butades, the potter, was struck by the creativity of her daughter and modelled a face of the youth in clay upon the outline of the contour, which he baked along with the clay tiles, which was preserved in the Nymphaeum in Corinth until Lucius Mummius sacked the city in 146 BC.

dibutades the inventor of portraiture
Illustration from Joachim von Sandrart

Although disputed by some as myth, the story attributed the invention of portraiture to a woman and throughout history, several famous personalities, which include Leonardo Da Vinci, Giorgio Vasari and Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, referred to the story in their writings. Even, in 1675, an engraving of the myth is included in the famous book of the German art historian Joachim von Sandrart, popularly known as the German Vasari, titled Teutsche Academie, or the German Academy of the Noble Arts of Architecture, Sculpture and Painting. From the 17th century onwards, the popularity of Dibutades rose among the Western artists and it became a popular theme among them from the 1770s. However, although Pliny mentioned a lamp as the source of light, subsequent painters took artistic freedom in this element. Alexander Runciman depicted a nocturnal scene, reminding us of the future Romantic style, while Jean-Baptiste Regnault decided to move the scene to broad daylight. Apart from that, he shifted the scene of the lovers into a sort of Arcadia to recreate them a couple of shepherds.

dibutades the inventor of portraiture
Dibutades Tracing the Portrait of a Shepherd, by Jean Baptiste Regnault

Another important example of depiction of the story is The Origin of Painting, created by Joseph Benoît Suvée, in which the artist portrayed the lovers in the dark indoor setting, where the young lover is fully awake and quite focused on the maid with an erotic element as he can’t keep his hands off her. Although the painting was not well-received, it earned a place in the famous Paris Salon of 1791.

dibutades the inventor of portraiture
Joseph Benoît Suvée, Invention of the Art of Drawing, 1791

Besides the male artists, the female painters also depicted the myth of Dibutades on their canvases, which include The Modern Dibutades, created by the French painter Anne Guéret, also known as Mlle Guéret the Younger and the famous work of Jeane-Elisabeth Chaudet, originally titled Dibutade Coming to Visit Her Lover’s Tomb and Lay Flowers There. However, unlike other works, while depicting the episode, Chaudet intentionally added a basket of carnations in her work to symbolise pure love and portrayed a moment after the departure of her beloved, when Dibutades contemplating the silhouette. Unfortunately, none of those works are trackable today. While Anne Guéret’s is lost, Chaudet’s work, housed in the Arras Museum in France, was destroyed during World War I.

dibutades the inventor of portraiture
The Maid of Corinth, by David Allan

Unfortunately, like every other aspect of human life, art is also submitted to patriarchy and for centuries, women had to overcome huge obstacles to become great painters, although many of them went unnoticed or were erased from history of Arts. Likewise, the name and fame of Dibutades, as the invention of portraiture, also started to fade from the 1820s onwards. But it never disappeared completely and her story keeps resonating even today as she appears in many discussions relating to female artists, which certainly raises a sort of pride in women today.

dibutades the inventor of portraiture
Agnodice, the Physician Taputti, the First Chemist
Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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