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Gallery Highlights - Portraiture

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Three Graces

Three Graces

Savage, Lee

Beer Party

Beer Party

Savage, Lee

Portrait of Mr. Nathan Button

Portrait of Mr. Nathan Button

Waldo, Samuel Lovett

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Portraits appeared early in American art. The desire to preserve likenesses of family members and prominent people was directly linked to European influences and the evolution of the history of art. It wasn’t until the time of Alexander the Great, however, that portraiture began to take on some of the many roles it occupies today within society. The terms portrait and portraiture are derived from the Italian term ritratto, “a visual reproduction which conveyed the specificity of the item under scrutiny.”1 The roots of the word made no specific reference to the human form. It was not until the mid-seventeenth century that portraits refer specifically to the human as their subject.TheAvampato Discovery Museum’s permanent collection spans almost 350 years of portraiture. The majority of the collection is representative of works done by American artists, with some important examples of European portraiture (including works by Rembrandt, Matisse, and Toulouse-Lautrec). From the Colonial American Freake-Gibbs Painter to the work of Contemporary artists including Chuck Close, Susan Hauptman, and Joseph Hirsch, the evolving style of portraiture provides a timeline through the changing nature of human likeness and cultural customs and symbols. What is the function of a portrait in our world today? An artist may be simply preserving an important moment within the cycle of life – birth, marriage, anniversaries, death – or may be commenting about the achievements of the sitter.

In Portraiture: Facing the Subject Joanna Woodall discusses the important shifts in the focus of portraiture throughout the ages. It was the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation that first marked an important separation between the body and identity:

Historically, this separation of the body and identity corresponds to the consolidation of the Protestant Reformation, which asserted a space between sign and prototype. It also has to do with the increasing importance of non-noble elites, which located virtue not in ‘blood’ but in abstract qualities such as talent, genius, and acumen.2

The importance of Rembrandt Van Rijn’s work during this phase is an example of portraiture dedicated to revealing the “interiority” of the sitter. This can be seen in the etching Beggar Man and Woman Behind a Bank (1630). Here Rembrandt depicts the inner torment of poverty and loss of pride of an elderly couple. Contemporaneous to Rembrandt was the groundbreaking influence of the seventeenth century French philosopher René Descartes. Descartes helped to solidify this conception of a distinction between the mind and the body with his famous statement “I think therefore I am.” In the nineteenth century theories of Karl Marx, identity was directly related to the individual’s socio-economic environment. His communist manifesto placed likeness within a collective ideology, deemphasizing the individual. The individual was subsumed by his or her station within a collective social arrangement.

With Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories of the late nineteenth century identity became a direct correlation to repressed sexual desire, while many twentieth century philosophers began equating identity with language and other shared systems of signs within a given community. The relationship between “likeness” and “character” in modernist portraiture reached an important disjunction with such theories. Can a portrait be seen as a depiction of the inner character of a particular sitter merely though a depiction of that sitter’s likeness? What does a portrait tell us about the artist and the sitter? Is the likeness of the sitter as important as the attributes that surround him or her? The answers to the questions vary throughout history. In early American portraiture, from the mid-seventeenth until the early nineteenth century, the clothing and objects worn by the sitter were as important as likeness. The seventeenth and eighteenth century concept of likeness did not emphasize photographic realism. The image of the sitter as a realistic representation was not the emphasis of a portrait.

The Portrait of Henry Gibbs (1670), attributed to the Freake-Gibbs Painter (called such because of the extant portraits of the Freake and Gibbs families of Boston) is an example of early portrait painting in America. Portraiture was used during the Colonial period as a means to preserve likenesses after the deaths of the sitters. This use of the painted portrait is akin to the earliest portraits of the Greek and Roman eras. Sociological and cultural factors affected the way that the artists (then known as limners) represented the chosen subject. The Puritans did not believe in religious art, and landscape painting would be left for future artists, the portrait was seen as the only fit subject for the artist. The portrait of the Colonial American was used in many of the ways portraiture has been used throughout time. The Colonial limner (meaning “artist” and originating from the term illuminate) was viewed in the same fashion as a skilled craftsman. The primitive style used in the portraits created by the Freake-Gibbs Painter is often attributed to both lack of training and a conscious reaction to the elaborate style of the European Baroque, which the Puritans also associated with the Catholic Church. In his book Colonial American Portraiture, Wayne Craven states that these painters were skilled artists, trained in Europe, who came to New England in hopes of prosperity. However, due to the limited population many trained painters supplemented their income through sign painting and other related utilitarian tasks. The style is typical, though, of the Elizabethan/Jacobean portrait painter in England, where most of these artists would have likely trained.

Children were viewed as little adults. It was not until the Enlightenment age writings of 18th century philosophers including Jean Jacques Rousseau and John Locke that childhood was considered a developmental process. Therefore, in Colonial portraits of children, like Portrait of Henry Gibbs, the child was depicted like a small adult. Henry’s garment was the type worn by all children, regardless of gender, until the age of seven when boys would begin to wear the same clothing as men. Families sought portrait painters to capture the likeness of family members after death, and to exhibit the material gains and prominence of the family, albeit in a very pious nature. The focus of most artistic expression in Protestant Colonial America was not visual. However, it was in New England in the 1660s that painting began to gain prominence. From the seventeenth century “approximately forty portraits of merchants, ministers, civic officials, and their families remain.”3 The portraits of the Freake and Gibbs families, of which Henry is an example, appear to display a level of wealth that seems inconsistent with the teachings of the Puritan church. The portrait of John Freake (1671-74) (Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts), attributed to the same painter, is dressed in a similarly refined, yet not overly elaborate manner. The lace, ornate brooch, and polished silver buttons display his status of this Boston merchant and lawyer. His hair is also longer than would normally be permitted within his Puritanical society. Frances K. Pohl notes the following regarding this precarious position of the Colonial artist and sitter:

Long hair was viewed by the Puritans as a sign of decadence, a mark of royalist sympathies; it was also associated with a suspect sympathy for Native peoples. Men in New England were regularly fined for sporting hair. Short hair, on the other hand, was the mark of the Puritan clergy, and it was also imposed on the lower classes. Thus hair, like dress, was a sign of class. John Freake’s shoulder- length hair is, like his dress, somewhere in between the two extremes.4

The importance placed toward the ownership and consumption of goods continued to influence portraitists into the eighteenth century. The demand for portraiture in America rose sharply after the 1740s. This rise in demand was correlated to the rise in American prosperity and the increase in the importation of British goods. At this point in history the British government maintained the Navigation Acts in its colonies, which prohibited Americans from importing goods from any place other than Great Britain. The popularity of portraiture in America mirrored the important role it had occupied for some time in British society. This desire for goods began to cross class lines in both Britain and America. The wealthy had always purchased items that set them apart from the lower classes. However, it was in eighteenth century England that items once considered too luxurious for purchase could be acquired by a greater portion of the population. People crossing all class lines began to purchase more goods in search of upward mobility. This growing desire for material goods in Britain and eventually in America, affected the way someone wished to be portrayed in a painting. Portrait artists would alter the clothing of a sitter to more aptly portray an important character attribute or suggest socioeconomic status, political affiliation, religious beliefs, and personal interests:

Historians of clothing now tend to believe that many if not most eighteenth century portrait painters invented the clothing in their paintings. At times this consisted only of giving the sitter a more elegant suit or dress that he or she really owned. In other instances, especially with portraits of women, the artists often created a new type of clothing specifically for the portrait.5

The race between consumers to have the biggest, best items sparked a major debate between moralist philosophers of the day:

Conservative moralists claimed that “fashion” was contaminating society. They hated the new forms of self-fashioning. The rage for distinction had spawned envy, discontent, insolence, and insubordination among the lower and middling orders. Almost every major author of this period contributed to the public discourse about the decay of social etiquette. The topic obsesses Tobias Smollett; it energized John Brown’s polemical writings. For these commentators, the problem was not original sin. The villain was mass consumption, a spreading evil that seemed inevitably to result in political leveling. Henry Fielding was only one of the many persons who sounded the alarm. In his Inquiry into the Cause of the Late Increase of Robbers (1751), Fielding announced that ‘the Introduction of Trade’ had transformed the character of the lower orders.6

Fielding noted that the consumer based society had caused the lower classes to seek material gains, which they had no money to buy and inevitably turned toward theft to support their vice.

Music in Colonial America was directly imported from Britain and consisted primarily of Psalters (Psalm Song Books). The earliest documented music in the Colonial Era was psalm singing. The Bay Psalm Book: The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated in English Meter was the first book printed in the Colonies in 1640. The first printing press to arrive in the Colonies from England was used to print this Psalter. It gained such fame that it was eventually popular in both England and Scotland. Prior to the printing of The Bay Psalm Book,the Ainsworth Psalter, which had been printed in Amsterdam in 1612 was used. The book was in use for over 100 years and went through several editions. The initial copies of the psalms contained no actual musical notation, but it was stated within that the psalms were meant to be sung. In 1698 a printed edition finally offered thirteen composed melodies for this purpose. Congregations were encouraged not only to learn the melodies by rote, but also to learn to read the written notation. This was also the era of songs including Yankee Doodle and A Mighty Fortress is Our God. Nursery rhymes were also penned, and sung to children throughout the period.

This emphasis on music learning opened up the opportunity for more composers to write music. In the eighteenth century singing schools were established, and composers began to gain fame in the New World. The first of these to do so was William Billings (1746-1800). Billings’ compositions include The New England Psalm Singer (1770), The Continental Harmony (1794), and Washington Street (1794). The influence of German music on early American song increased a great deal after the Revolution of 1848 caused many musicians and teachers to immigrate to American. This influx of German musical tradition would greatly affect the musical output in America. Lowell Mason (1792-1872) was one of the most influential of these German educated musicians. A Massachusetts native Mason became the president of the Boston Handel and Haydn society in 1827, and headed the founding of the Boston Academy of Music in 1833.

The undated Portrait of Charles Lossett, Esq., by Irish born painter Nathaniel Hone (1718-1784), exhibits the typical style of the eighteenth century portrait in both England and America. Relocating to London from Dublin in 1742 Hone established a reputation as a portrait painter and miniaturist. The sitter Charles Lossett was probably the son of an English nobleman. He is portrayed in a three-quarter pose, a popular style of the time. Lossett is shown holding a letter, which alludes to his status as an educated man, “a man of letters.” The unelaborated nature of his clothing suggests that Hone did not follow the common practice of altering the subject’s attire. The dual portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Button, by portrait artists Samuel Lovett Waldo (1783-1861) and William Jewett (1792-1874), provide an example of early nineteenth century portraiture practices in America and the continuing influence of English portraiture in America. Waldo had studied with the Romantic American painter Benjamin West at the Royal Academy in London, where he was exposed to the influences firsthand. In the Portrait of Mr. Nathan Button (1831) the young husband is posed in a manner similar to that of Charles Lossett. However, Mr. Button’s pose is a providing a more distinctive frontal view than that of Charles Lossett. Button is also shown holding a letter, or paper of some sort, alluding to his position as an educated man of means. The Portrait of Mrs. Nathan Button (1831) provides a full frontal view of the young bride. Her dark clothing, like that of her husband, was typical of American formal dress in the 1830s, more conservative than European trends. One important difference between the portraits of Lossett and the Buttons’ is the background. The influence of Romanticism on the painters Waldo and Jewett is seen clearly in the inclusion of a landscape as backdrop for the two figures. In both images a curtain, or drapery of some sort, is pulled back revealing what appears to be a vast seascape behind each figure.

The oil painting Laughing Girl (n.d.) by Lilla Cabot Perry (1848-1933) provides an example of portraiture by an American Impressionist painter. Perry was a Boston native who began her professional training as a painter at the age of 36. However, it was not until the age of 41, during her time in Paris with her husband and children, that Perry saw her first Impressionist painting, an experience that had a tremendous influence on her as an artist. After seeking out the renowned French Impressionist Claude Monet, Perry found the mentor who shaped her artistic style. Each summer Perry and her family would rent a house at Giverny, where Monet lived and worked. Upon returning home to Boston, Perry continued to paint and write poetry, eventually publishing four volumes of her work. Perry has been given credit for being one of the first artists to introduce Impressionism to America. She often used her daughters for her portraits. Her interest in representing females – her children especially- is often linked to the work of fellow Impressionist Mary Cassatt. It was the Impressionist movement in both Europe and America that began to free the painter from an emphasis on pictorial reality. With Impressionism color and light reigned supreme over the linear. This painterly style was a first step toward abstraction and the Modern.

The French painter Henri Matisse (1865-1954) took from the Impressionists the import of color, and brought it to a new level in his early Fauvist canvases. Matisse, a former law student, came to art late in life. For Matisse Expressionism had more to do with formal concerns and the aesthetic nature of art than the prevalent trend of German Expressionism. German Expressionism was a vehicle for revealing inner spiritual and emotional states. Matisse approached it as an ideal of formal beauty. By the early 1920s Matisse began making his many images of the odalisque, his emphasis on color giving way to the return of line – reclining, nude female figures that appear as part of the surrounding picture plane. In many of the images the decorative patterns of rugs, wallpaper, and furniture are treated as importantly as the figure itself. When Matisse began to strip away the pattern and decorative surfaces he arrived at the simple linear style seen in the drypoint print Seated Woman (1925-29). In this contour line engraving, Matisse was very sparing in his mark-making. The woman’s gesture is depicted through sweeping curvilinear lines, while the folds in her clothing are created through short, sparsely placed lines. The search for purity was a prevalent trend at this point in Modern visual art. In architecture the International Style was looking for ways to apply this minimalist approach to buildings.

Matisse’s continual interest in portraiture reflected his own search for his identity through his art. The purpose portraitures had been changed by the First World War, and the discoveries of Freud and others discussed earlier. The view of the self as a unified whole had been challenged and debunked. Artists were searching for a new way to express the age of change, confusion, and search for understanding. Matisse’s figurative imagery finds him working with both sitters and paid models. In his book Matisse Portraits John Klein offers a redefinition of portraiture. He argued that Seated Woman possibly an image that should be considered a portrait:

As a way of addressing the conflict I have perceived between the portraits in Matisse’s art and conventional ideas of the genre, I have sought to give a new definition of portraiture. As understood here, a portrait is a work of art whose principal object is any identifiable representation of a specific individual or individuals other than hired models. This definition is founded on the premise that traditional visual and psychological components of portraiture are inadequate to an assessment of the avowed portrait practice of Matisse and many other modern artists.7

Klein views portraiture as primarily social in origin, a question of the relationships between sitter, artist, and viewer.

Fellow Frenchman Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s (1864-1901) lithographic print Paula Brébion (n.d.) shares similar stylistic concerns with Matisse’s Seated Woman, including an economy of line and emphasis on gesture, but his use of “expression” is markedly different. Paula Brébion is part of Toulouse-Lautrec’s series Le Café Concert. Toulouse-Lautrec’s portraiture of this period represented the men and women of the famous Parisian nightspot the Moulin Rouge. Recently brought back into mainstream culture by the release of the film of the same name, Toulouse-Lautrec’s images from the series use gesture and expression to convey the characters that surrounded this bohemian stronghold.

Philadelphia born Joseph Hirsch (1910-1981) was an urban realist painter who studied with George Luks, a member of “The Eight,” in New York City. Like many of the artists associated with “The Eight,” Hirsch’s art was one of social commentary. One of Hirsch’s most noted images Masseur Tom (1933), an oil painting of a large male figure at a Turkish bath, won the 1934 Walter Lippinscott award for figure painting. The style of this monumental full-length portrait is a direct result of Hirsch’s training with Luks. Luks had been greatly influenced by Robert Henri. Henri’s insistence on spontaneity and the importance of the painter’s touch can be seen in this image. The strong complementary color scheme of the background works to push the figure of Tom towards the viewer. The image reflects the humanistic concerns of “The Eight” in their depiction of the American scene. Reflecting upon his art and subject matter for a 1970 exhibition at the University of Georgia Art Museum Hirsch stated the following:

My discoveries seem to come from re-examining what we think of as familiar. There underlies the core that I’m after. This digging for the unexpected constitutes a paradox which I cannot handle alone and I have come to depend on the fresh approach of others who see my work. So repeatedly am I edified and humbled, when they find things of which I am unaware, that I would abolish program notes. Overtones which escape an author find a response in the perceptive reader making contact on other levels and drawing conclusions no less valid than what the author purposes.8

Like Hirsch, Larry Rivers focused on the relationship between art and life throughout his career. Taking the ordinary and presenting it in an extraordinary manner, Rivers admits that Impressionism first drew him into the arts. He began his career as a jazz musician, playing saxophone in several small jazz ensembles in New York City. Once he decided that “he must draw” he began his studies at Hans Hofmann’s art school in his late twenties. Rivers was surrounded by abstraction and admitted his first impulse was to go against this grain of his training and paint in a realistic manner – is 1993 Self-Portrait exemplifies his style and approach to portraiture.

Susan Hauptman is another artist uses herself as subject matter to depict her place within interpersonal relationships. For the last twenty years she has focused almost exclusively on self-portraiture, depicting her relationships and the aging process. Her style is reminiscent of another artist who was preoccupied with self-portraiture within her work – Frida Kahlo. Like Hauptman, Kahlo was known for portraying herself at various points in her interpersonal relationships, most often with her husband the Mexican painter Diego Rivera. In Self Portrait (1996), Hauptman is expressing her own, sometimes long-distance relationship with her husband. Her formal, frontal pose also links her self-portraiture stylistically with Kahlo’s.

Selena Trieff’s haunting images such as Two Pilgrim Heads (1994) and Three Women with Raven (n.d.), are primarily self-portraits and portraits of her immediate family. Her work, like that of Lilla Cabott Perry and Susan Hauptman is highly autobiographical. Trieff studied with Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko and learned color theory from Hans Hofmann. The influence of these artists upon her work is seen in the vibrancy and purity of her choice in color and tone. She also counts the German Expressionists, including Käthe Kollwitz (By the Church Wall, n.d.) and Edvard Munch, as having an important influence upon her stark and expressive style.

The work of Chuck Close is seminal within the development of modern approaches toward portraiture. His technique is an adaptation of the traditional systematic grid used as a drawing and compositional aid, by artists of the Renaissance. Yet for Close, this grid format not only aided in his depictions of important people, but opened up the possibility of using tiny quadrants of abstraction to create a coherent and photo-realistic image of the whole. Close’s decision to portray the minimalist composer Philip Glass was reflective of his choice in subject matter throughout his career of portrait painting. Phil II, an edition of handmade paper images, depicts the composer Philip Glass as translated from the photo Close took of his subject. Glass and Close had been friends for years by the time this image was created. In a conversation between Close and Glass published in the collection titled The Portraits Speak: Chuck Close in Conversation with 27 of His Subjects (1997), the two artists reminisce on their decades of friendship. Glass comments several times about his close relationships with visual artists. He states that he has always been friends with painters, above all other types of artists. It was just this kinship with the visual art world that inspired Glass toward his minimalist style of musical composition. It appears that Glass’s musical experiments parallel the move toward minimalism in the visual arts. Close’s choice of grisaille (using only the gray scale) for the composition also appears to reflect the minimalist aesthetic in a visual form. For Glass, and other minimalist musicians, the movement was a reaction to the sensory overload of American culture. This era of modernism in music and the visual arts is reflective of the historical relationship between the two. Musicians and artists were both attempting to create works that reaffirmed the process and materials with which they worked. Music minimalism reinforced the importance of individual sound and its structural relationships, while in visual art it called for the reaffirmation of a painting as an exercise in form and composition.

Portraiture is a subject that continues to fascinate artists and viewers alike. Regardless of the medium or format, contemporary artists continue to explore the human form, attempting to capture both the sitter’s interior and exterior likeness. The Avampato Discovery Museum’s permanent collection houses a number of significant 20th and 21st century works which reflect continued vitality of this genre. Examples of note include: Raphael Soyer’s Kathleen (Putting out a Cigarette), 1946; Steven Assael’s June, 1997 and Gary Kirksey’s A Vanishing Generation: 44601 Veeta Terrell, 92 (2001); and Carl Gombert’s Family Resemblance, 2001.

  1. Joanna Woodall, “Introduction” in Portraiture: Facing the Subject, (Manchester UK: Manchester University Press, 1997), 17.
  2. Joanna Woodall, “Introduction” in Portraiture: Facing the Subject, 10.
  3. Frances K. Pohl, Framing America: A Social History of American Art, (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2002), 59.
  4. Ibid., 60.
  5. Ellen G. Miles, “ Introduction” in The Portrait in Eighteenth Century America, (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993), 12.
  6. T. H. Breen, “The Meaning of ‘Likeness’: Portrait Painting in and Eighteenth Century Consumer Society” in The Portrait in Eighteenth Century America, (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993), 40-41.
  7. John Klein, Matisse Portraits, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 10.
  8. Joseph Hirsch, Frontispiece in Joseph Hirsch, (Athens, GA: Georgia Museum of Art, 1970).