History shows that in 1514 when the Shah Ismail of Persia was readying to defend his country against the invading Turks, he sent the portraitist Bihzad into hiding for protection. Bihzads of the world back then were prizes of war. The Shah knew, as did popes and princes, that the art of portraiture would allow him to live on.
But the days of memorializing the rich and powerful no longer belong to the rich and powerful. Middle-class patrons now commission portraits, too. Demand is reflected in attendance at museums and galleries that feature portraits. The 155-year-old National Portrait Gallery has seen attendance zoom up 100,000. And London’s BP Portrait Award Next Generation exhibit sold out this year. Those words “Next generation” identify that segment of the population making the art of portraiture popular.
What can be driving this interest? Maybe it’s the same impetus behind Facebook and Twitter, both of which enable people to talk about themselves and call attention to their individuality, their states of mind? Maybe the demand for portraits is an extension of the “me generation.”
Clearly, museums are tuned into the trend. Portrait shows are showing up in several exhibit halls. Likenesses that do more than describe appearance, that delineate inwardness, seem to be the kind that would appeal to the “next generation.” I’m thinking of work at the Fenimore Art Museum, NY by John Singer Sargent’s, who was known for his ability to capture personality.
Then there’s the Walters Art Museum, MD focus on the portrait of John Meer by Rembrandt Peale, who is known for picturing presidents. Peale’s most incisive portraits are those that reveal the individuality of his family members. Meer was a family friend who nearly died from Scarlet Fever. The painting has Meer pointing to a skull on his lap, as if it could have been him.
Museums on the west coast of Florida abound in penetrating portraits. Standouts include Ringling Museum’s “Pausias and Glycera” by Peter Paul Rubens. The portrait is said to be that of the artist and his first wife, Isabella Brandt. The gesture of Pausias, an artist famed for his love for Glycera, with his left arm on her shoulder, lends credence to the image being that of Rubens and his wife to whom he was devoted.
Chuck Close’s“Georgia/Fingerprint I,” 1985 at Tampa Museum is an image of his daughter in which he gets the bigness of her smile past her lips into the whole of the picture plane. Many of Close’s portraits, usually of family and friends, were more about art issues – technique and the like. “Georgia” looks to be about Georgia.
“Village Girl–Lily Cow,”1915 is by Robert Henri of the Ashcan School and known for portraits of street people. Owned by the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, this painting conveys the very life force, the near divine spark of the girl.
Salvador Dali’s “Self Portrait”1921), held by the Dali Museum in St. Pete, is a penetrating look at a young Dali, who seems bent, even back then, on posturing. As usual, he was up front about it: “I bought a large black felt hat, and a pipe which I did not smoke and never lighted, but which I kept constantly hanging from the corner of my mouth. I loathed long trousers, and decided to wear short pants with stockings, and some puttees. On rainy days I wore a raincoat I’d brought from Figueres, but so long that it nearly reached the ground. I would wear the big black hat with that raincoat, my hair emerging from either side like a mane. I now realize that those who knew me at the time were not exaggerating when they said that my appearance was ‘fantastic’. For indeed it was. Whenever I came out of my room or went back to it, groups of busybodies would gather to see me go by. And I would continue on my way with my head high, puffed up with pride.”