The limits of relevance

The historical portrait is a great way to understand our legacy. Don’t consign it to the back room.

Sir William Sidney Smith, by John Eckstein, oil on canvas, 1801-02, courtesy National Portrait Gallery. Although the subject is a real event, the sitter is revealed as a theatrical, egotistical, and rather absurd character. But he was a star in his day.

One of my favorite museums is the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London. That’s not because its collection is stellar—it’s piddling compared to the nearby National Gallery. It tells the story of Britain through art, and I love history.

There’s so much you can learn from portraits—the manners and mores of the times, the sitters’ blind spots and where they had to be flattered. Portraits, particularly painted ones, are romantic in a way that photographs are not. And then there’s simple curiosity. What did Thomas Cranmer, Admiral Nelson or Florence Nightingale really look like?
Among the paintings on display when I visited the NPG were the portraits of Iroquois chieftains—Joseph Brant, Red Jacket, Cornplanter and Governor Blacksnake. The Iroquois Confederacy played important roles in both the Revolution and the French and Indian War, as full allies of the British. Joseph Brant was once important enough to have been painted by court painter George Romney in London and Gilbert Stuart here.
Queen Elizabeth I (‘The Ditchley portrait’), c. 1592, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, courtesy National Portrait Gallery. Elizabeth stands astride the globe, but the portrait’s symbolic theme is her forgiveness of Henry Lee for retiring from court.
The NPG is suffering from falling visitation, dropping from 1,703,411 in 2017 to 1,586,451 visitors in 2018. As bad as that sounds, it understates the problem. Visits are down more than 25% from the 2.1 million visitors they recorded in 2015/16. Then, management blamed the drop on a counting error by an external company.
Now critics suggest that the current decline may be due to director Nicholas Cullinan’s pursuit of diversity. “If the implication of this criticism is that we and other museums should not programme contemporary artists (which in our case happen to be mostly women) and only feature well-known names, I think we have a problem with metrics that focus on quantity alone.”
That’s a bit of a red herring. Britons have a long and sometimes mystifying affection for contemporary art. In fact, Tate Modern is the UK’s biggest visitor attraction.
The Slave Gang, c. 1900, by unknown artist, glass magic lantern plate, published by The London Missionary Society, courtesy National Portrait Gallery.
Still, it’s hard to imagine that people come to the NPG for the contemporary portraits. They come to see the Chandos William Shakespeare, exquisite Elizabethan miniatures, or ponder the sad story of Lady Jane Grey. The NPG’s charm lies in its antique fustiness. It’s the thinking tourist’s Tower of London experience.
The portrait gallery can only be as diverse as the society it represents, which in much of Britain’s history meant white people painted by men. Today British society is more plural, but it’s also glutted with imagery. Nobody needs to go to the NPG to see what the Prime Minister look like—her photo is everywhere. Nobody needs to go there to look at the British Everyman, either, since he’s just down the street.
Winston Churchill, 1916, by Sir William Orpen, courtesy National Portrait Gallery. Churchill resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty after the disaster at Gallipoli, which claimed 46,000 allied lives. His reputation was ruined, albeit temporarily. This portrait was painted at the lowest point in Churchill’s career.
Emphasizing diversity can be a way of saying, “Look how backwards our ancestors were.” England was, from the 16th century to the 20th, an empire. Empires are by nature diverse. Those Iroquois leaders in a museum dedicated to British subjects were one example. So are 31 different maharajas represented in more than 200 portraits. Or the two great empire-building British rulers, Elizabeth I and Victoria, and the longest-reigning British monarch, Elizabeth II. There’s plenty of diversity in British history once you stop pigeonholing what diversity means.

Shell game

The Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1563
From: “Hunter College Art & Art History Department”
Date: May 21, 2015 at 2:33:12 PM EDT

To: undisclosed-recipients:

Subject: Course Updates: Renaissance Art and Art of Africa
Dear all,
Unfortunately “Renaissance Art I” has been cancelled.  If you are one of those preregistered for this course, please get in touch with me asap so that we can find you a replacement.
And on a more positive note: the “Art of Africa” course will be taught by Dr. Gary van Wyk.  Please see the description, below.  Again, email if you would like to enroll in this course.

St. Mark Preaching in Alexandria, Giovanni Bellini, 1504-07
That note was received yesterday by a Hunter College MA candidate in Art History. Whatever the relative merits of African vs. Renaissance art, the latter is fundamental, not just for art historians, but for literate citizens of the western world in general.
The School of Athens, Raphael, 1510
This gap is not just about a class: if there is no Renaissance painting class being offered at the graduate school, there is nobody to advise a student in writing his or her thesis. That means Renaissance painting is effectively off the table as a concentration. In turn, that student is at a disadvantage in seeking work focusing on Renaissance art.

“The course will explore post-colonial and postmodern positions on Africa in the art world, with special focus on the School of Dakar and the Negritude movement (Senegal), the Nsukka School (Nigeria), and the Resistance Art Movement in South Africa,” reads the course description for Dr. van Wyk’s class. “The course will consider contemporary artistic and curatorial practices that re-frame Africanity in today’s global context, including the current Venice Biennale, curated by Okwui Enwezor.”

 In Manhattan’s art world, Renaissance art dwarfs any contemporary African collections. Hunter is setting its students up for irrelevancy in the very job market in which it is located, which is also the most important art market in this country. 

But there is another problem here, common to public universities. Required classes are often not available, leading kids to take longer to finish degrees.
The Ghent Altarpiece, Jan van Eyck, c. 1432
While about 80 percent of undergraduates earning degrees at private colleges and universities finish within four years, at public institutions the rate drops to 50 percent.
That can make a public school education less of a good deal compared to private colleges. Not only must the student shell out more tuition than originally anticipated, he or she loses a year of earnings in the bargain.
Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter, Pietro Perugino, 1481
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in August 2015. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.