Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Power of the Portrait

As an art appraiser I am often asked to appraise portrait paintings. What's so interesting about portraiture is its ability to capture the very essence of a person, a time-period, and even an entire society.

At the turn of the 20th century, American portrait painters held a unique position in depicting American culture. Artists like John Singer Sargent, Thomas Eakins, and William Merritt Chase established themselves as American master painters – capturing portraits of the political and industrialist elite. With images of Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, and novelist Henry James, artists like John Singer Sargent depicted influential figures as icons of American progress. Bringing their European academic training to the U.S., these artists presented to the international art world that American society was bridging Old World traditions with a uniquely American experience.

Patrons of commissioned portraits had always played a significant role in supporting the long-held tradition of portraiture. European nobility, aristocrats, and the wealthy bourgeois had helped sustain the genre of painting for hundreds of years. During the Gilded Age of the 1880s, a new American industrialist elite used the tradition of portraiture to portray themselves as symbols of worldly power and strength. East Coast artist were commissioned to present such individuals as the figureheads of American culture.

Not only the wealthy gave patronage to the realm of early portraiture. Limning portraits were often commissioned by working-class families. These commissions by second-tier artists were less refined than the works of Sargent or Chase. Although these examples did not have the same level of aesthetic precision, technique, or refinement -- they were significant in representing all facets of the American experience.

On the West Coast, painters including Belle Baranceanu, Nicholas Brigante, Sueo Serisawa, Boris Deutsch, William Hesthal, Anton Refregier, continued the heritage of figurative painting, but used it in a modern way in order to make a social commentary. Francis De Erdely, a Hungarian √©migr√©, who became one of California’s most notable modernists painted portraits in Europe, Detroit, and finally Los Angeles during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

Francis De Erdely almost always painted figurative subjects, a genre not often associated with modernism. Francis De Erdely’s portraits were painted not out of nostalgia for the past, but as a reflection of the human condition on the West Coast of California. Francis De Erdely created some of the most striking figurative paintings in American art and his work remains poignant today.

Portrait and figurative painting continues to exist as an unparalleled genre of painting which serves as a compelling and accomplished articulation of the human experience. A portrait reveals a time, a place, and an individual. A successful portrait by a skilled artist reveals a uniquely intimate moment between an artist and sitter – one that is pure, unguarded, and candid.
(©2009 Alissa J. Anderson. All Rights Reserved. None of the contents of this article may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanic, photocopy, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of Anderson Shea Art Appraisals, and the appraiser’s signature.)