Portraiture is where art meets commerce head on. I notice that as soon as I walk into this seething private view of the annual exhibition by members of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters.
An area is dedicated to something called 'portrait enquiries'. There's a table, a ledger (yes, it looks quite that highfalutin), pens, and prints of artists' works. And this year, as ever, the walls are teeming with portraits, almost all of them smartly framed (portraits can't afford to look scruffy). Choose your style. Choose how you would like to see yourself. Then write down your name beside the portraitist of your choice and, gulp, ask him how much.
That is the thing about portraiture. It is immediately accountable to its subject, and to fairly traditional notions of what reality consists of in a way that much contemporary art is not. Contemporary art tests reality until it bends and nearly breaks. People laugh at it. People mock it. Then some Mr Anonymous in a city suit lays down a million or two by phone line, and the mockers fall silent, and the art critics start to pen long and difficult sentences.
No, commissioned portraiture just can't get away with the wild levels of experimentation which characterised so much of the art of the 20th century. All those 'isms'! People want to be reassured by their portraits, they want to recognise themselves in what they see, and not only their own hands, faces and bodies, but the kinds of contexts in which they live: the college they preside over with such authority; the medals that shine, so richly deserved. And the portrait painter, by and large, needs to satisfy their needs so that money will shift relatively easily from patron to portraitist. It's as simple as that. It always has been.
And yet there is a problem here. Much of the stuff on these walls is excellently painted; yet much of it doesn't stir us very much. It doesn't have the excitement of work which is breaking new ground. We know it for what it is, for what it is expecting us to feel, almost without looking at it. It is, for example, satisfying easy assumptions about class, respectability, correct behaviour. It is making a lot of people feel that this is how the dependable world works. It doesn't court risks. We look at portraits of prosperous families sitting on a chaise longue, and we recognise that this is exactly the kind of scene that Gainsborough would have painted for a similar family two hundred years ago. The price would have been high – as it is now. And the head of this memorialised family would have been hugely proud that they had the money to confirm their own status as a serenely prosperous family.
The dreariest paintings are of human beings we know both too well and not at all: Mrs Thatcher, the Princess Royal. Now why do these paintings seem so tediously unlikeable and uninteresting? Well, they seem to be identikit – if not mulch – works, and not even especially good likenesses. They feel like general impressions which have had the reality wrung out of them. Public figures as visually edible as last month's mouldering baguette behind the radiator. Or is it that we never really liked the idea of these women much anyway?
Images and text by Independent.co.uk