Monday Morning Art School: the human face

The best portrait painters drag us into the emotional space of their sitters.

Henry VIII at 49, 1540, Hans Holbein the Younger, courtesy Gallerie Nazionali d’arte antica, Palazzo Barberini, Rome 

My students will be painting self-portraits this week. One of them asked me for a masterpiece to copy. Without hesitation, I recommended the Tennessee painter Tom Root.

My pal Eric Jacobsen calls Tom Root “a national treasure.” His Holiday (Rest on the Flight to Egypt) is one of the few paintings that carries the western tradition of religious painting successfully into the modern era. He’s technically superlative and keyed into the contemporary zeitgeist. Since I want my students to paint in the modern idiom, it’s best that she studies a modern painter.

La Monomane de l’envie (Insane Woman), 1822, Theodore Gericault, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon

The best portrait painters drag us into the emotional space of their sitters. That is why we can look at a Renaissance painting and feel that sudden start of connection. This is an absurdly truncated list that misses many masterpieces, but it’s a start for any student who wants to study portraiture.

Albrecht Dürer’s Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight could be subtitled, “Look at me and my glorious hair.” Dürer chose to present himself with the iconography usually reserved for Christ, but he’s not saying he’s a god. Rather, he’s telling us that all followers of Jesus are imitators of Christ, and that his own talents are God-given.

How very different is the lesson in Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Book. Bronzino was a Medici court painter, and his portraits are all assured, stylish and reserved. This haughtiness reflects the rarified atmosphere in which he worked, but he still reveals the underlying vanity of youth in this young scholar whose name is lost to time.

The Jester Don Diego de Acedo, c. 1644, Diego Velázquez, courtesy Museo del Prado

Jan van Eyck is known to most of us for the Arnolfini Portrait, truly one of the most beautiful and enigmatic paintings ever made. Its complex iconography, perspective and rare attention to detail are absolutely clear, and yet we have no idea what the painting actually means.

In his day, he was best known for history painting, but the French romantic Theodore Gericault was a sensitive portraitist. He painted a series of ten portraits of the insane, on the encouragement of Dr. Étienne-Jean Georget, a pioneer in psychiatry. His best portraits are the inverse of Bronzino’s—humble, sensitive and honest.

Hans Holbein‘s art is superlatively realistic, and he was able to capture likenesses with rare facility. He had a penetrating understanding of character, and combined technical skill with allusion and symbolism. He must have been a skilled courtier himself, to have survived the intrigues of the English court as well as he did.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, John Singer Sargent, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Sir Anthony van Dyck was a Flemish Baroque artist who became the next great English court painter. He was a favorite of Charles I, and for good reasons: his keen observation, the liveliness of his depictions, and his ability to portray that most elusive of characteristics, majesty.

No list of portrait painters would be complete without Diego Velázquez. Hired to paint popes and princes, his affinity was to the court dwarves and jesters who were kept as enslaved human pets. That doesn’t mean he didn’t understand his regal subjects; his portrait of Pope Innocent X is the penetrating gaze of an ambitious and self-satisfied man.

Rembrandt is considered the greatest painter of the Dutch Golden Age. He was prolific in many genres, but particularly as a student of the human face—especially his own, which he used as a map of the human condition. His Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar is a masterly disquisition on the subject of aging. With age comes wisdom—and sagging jowls.

And then there’s John Singer Sargent, whose motto had to be “Give the people what they want.” He captured the incredible wealth of the Gilded Age, but it’s never clear that he likes his models. In many cases, he reduces them to mannikins, but in The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, he makes a poignant statement about the role of women and girls in society. The girls recede into space in order of age, with the eldest (Florence, age 14) almost enveloped in the darkness of the drawing room.

The servant stairs

My diet is in tatters but I’m on schedule with the portrait.
I spent most of my time yesterday moving the coffee table from place to place trying to make an interesting geometry of that bottom left corner.

Mary Killen tells the story of Antony Armstrong-Jones (Lord Snowdon) and his lifelong enmity to Colin Tennant. It began when Armstrong-Jones was told to go to the tradesmen’s entrance while photographing Tennant’s wedding to Lady Anne Coke. The two men had been at Eton together.

I’d assumed it was a story of injured amour-propre. This week I’ve spent some time on the servants’ stairs of a Georgian townhouse, and my sympathy for Lord Snowdon has increased (albeit marginally). I would not have enjoyed hefting the absurdly-heavy photography equipment of 1956 up and down those narrow stairs, skirting past the maids and footmen I ignored in everyday life.
I’ve rearranged the furniture, set up my easel, and otherwise made a terrible mess of the drawing room. That’s a James Morrison landscape overlooking my shoulder there; a happy omen, if you ask me.
The house in which I’m working has had many iterations since its construction. The main staircase, very grand, rises in a beautiful spiral from a first-floor vestibule. There is a modern staircase, added after the building served a stint as offices after World War 1, when the house was converted to flats. This staircase connects the first floor with the basement floors into a three-story unit. But in its original form, the public rooms of this house—the first floor, the piano nobile above it, and the bedrooms above that—were effectively sealed off from the tradesmen’s entrance by this lack of public staircase.
The only staircase which ran the height of the house was a stone one, intended for servants. Despite my familiarity with historical English novels, I didn’t fully grasp what this meant until I’d trotted up and down them a dozen times.
It’s easy to feel how intimidated a homeowner would be at the idea of running down those service stairs to check on the operation of his own home (if such an outlandish idea had even occurred to him). The stone steps are set as far back as is possible without actually being in the garden, and they’re not easy on the feet. They are narrow and turn fast in their circular shaft. The humble historical housemaid must have had legs of steel.
I captured my subject briefly for a quick drawing and managed to make her look all of fifteen years old. The bones are right, however, and I’ll try again today.
The modern Scots who live in these terraced houses are more fit than their American cousins, with our easy, lazy two-story homes. The stone stairs are now the main stairs between the garden-level kitchen and the main rooms of the house. Our host, a man in his fifties, regularly trots up and down them. I’m working in a drawing room, and I’m not as strong as a Regency lady’s maid, so I recruited my husband to carry my easel and kit up for me.
This room is a symphony of indirect light and beautiful paneling. The setting is very lovely, but I don’t want to allow it to dwarf my subject. I spent the day carefully measuring and plotting my composition.
I’ve also managed, occasionally, to sit my subject down for some preliminary drawings. I’m afraid I’ll need a butterfly net and some duct tape to fully capture her. She’s a very energetic woman.
Then there is the city itself, which is hilly and congested. It was a foggy, rainy evening, and our hosts graciously took us to dinner. We took a cab there and walked home; the trips took the same length of time, and walking was frankly more pleasant.
I had Shetland scallops, served very differently from the bay scallops at home, with a dry white wine along the lines of a vinho verde. This was followed by a nightcap of a private cask single-malt whisky. My diet is in tatters but I’m feeling less guilty than you might think.

When the artist likes his subject

I’m studying Francis Cadell before a portrait commission takes me to his home town.
Portrait of a Lady in Black, c. 1921, Francis Cadell, courtesy National Gallery of Scotland.
Winston Churchill hated his state portrait, painted by Graham Vivian Sutherland. It so rankled that his widow, Clementine Churchill, had her secretary burn it more than a decade after his death. That’s the fate of a portrait that pisses everyone off. It must have felt like a stinging rebuke to Sutherland, who was blameless.
Sutherland was not primarily a portrait artist, but a tapestry designer and landscape painter. He thoroughly embraced modernism. There are some artists who could combine that with warmth, but for most of the 20thcentury, modernism was coupled with cool disdain. Sutherland’s portraits, mainly done in the 1950s, are icily insightful. Many illustrious people sat for him, so he was a logical choice for the parliamentarians who commissioned the painting. Sutherland was fashionable.
Interior, The Orange Blind, c. 1914, by Francis Cadell, courtesy Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Unless Cadell was on a ladder, this is an imagined viewpoint.
Another painter who did portraits as part of a larger ouevre was the Scottish Colourist Francis Cadell. He was skilled at still life, interiors, and plein air landscapes. He was also a portrait painter in his native Edinburgh. Unlike Sutherland’s, his portraits are sympathetic. They tie their subjects to what interested him most—the house and furnishings that provided the setting.
Lesser thinkers might have made a cynical statement about materialism, and in more sophisticated cities, that would have been lapped up. However, there’s absolutely no condescension in Cadell’s worldview. He is as interested in interiors as they are. As an artist, he comes across as a thoroughly nice man.
The Parting, c. 1915, Francis Cadell, courtesy National Gallery of Scotland.
Cadell was the only Colourist to serve in the Great War. Before he was sent to the Front, he did a series of drawings in ink and watercolor. These are fast, witty drawings built on graphic design and splashes of color.
His later paintings worked off the same idea. He created meticulous, exciting value compositions in white, cream and black, and shot them through with highlights of bold color. That color was often red.
I’m studying Cadell because I’m going to Scotland next Spring. I’ll do a portrait, in a home on the next street to where Cadell lived and worked for nearly 12 years. He painted his Portrait of a Lady in Black, above, in his Ainslie Place studio. As with so many of his paintings, it’s as much a portrait of a place as of a woman. In fact, the model, Bertia Don Wauchope, was not a client at all, but his regular model.
We read the shape between the fan and her torso first, because it’s the highest contrast in the painting. Rapidly, though, we begin to see the spaces defined in mauve, and the reflection of her great hat in the mirror. It’s a stunning monochromatic composition alleviated only by the pink of that ridiculous flower and a slash of lipstick. And yet there’s nothing dehumanized about it.
The Vase of Water, 1922, Francis Cadell. His studio had mauve walls, so it’s an indication that the painting was done there.
The key to Cadell’s portraits are, in fact, his still lives. He ruthlessly reduced detail and shadow into blocks of brilliant color. Their main purpose was to provide a brilliantly faceted abstract framework. And yet there is a casualness to them that make them plausible moments stolen from life.
Sticking an international trip into my summer schedule is impossible, so I plan to go in May, as soon as the weather warms enough to paint outdoors. A side trip to Ionaseems inevitable. After all, that’s where I first met Cadell and the other Colourists. This time, I’m bringing my oils.

God save the Queen

One may be the Queen of England, the other a cleaner, but they’re both ladies of a certain age.
Ena, by Ruskin Spear, available through Chris Beetles Gallery.

Tom Root is a portrait artist I know only from Facebook. He—like many other artists—occasionally uses Facebook to post paintings that catch his eye. This is how I first saw postwar Briton Ruskin Spear’swork.

While Spear painted many typical portrait commissions of public figures great and small, he was attracted to the simplicity of ordinary people in ordinary dress. Ena, above, is a bustling little woman who appears ready to jump off the canvas and get back to work. Spear concentrated his modeling on her strong, stout arms, but the central motif is her formidable English handbag.
Spear had a thing for cats, which he painted being coddled and on their own doing kitty things. Wheelchair-bound due to childhood polio, he would have presented an inviting lap for felines. It’s clear he returned the affection.
Sleeping Cat, by Ruskin Spears, courtesy Somerset Museums Service.

Queen Elizabeth II recently unveiled a new portrait by Benjamin Sullivanfor the 100th anniversary of the Royal Air Force Club. The Queen has been photographed and painted countless times, by personages as varied as Cecil Beeton, Andy Warhol, and Lucien Freud. The only one I have truly loved was her 2008 portrait by Annie Leibovitz. Most of the others have been either colorless or nasty. She deserves better.
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by Benjamin Sullivan, courtesy of the Royal Air Force Club.
Sullivan’s portrait is lovely, and not just for the ubiquitous Launer handbag at her feet. The painting is sympathetic, yet honest about her advanced age, which is visible in the slight swelling of her ankles, her lined face, and those beautifully folded hands. Moreover, it captures her steadfast tenacity, the trait that’s made her Britain’s longest-living monarch.
“It’s where she put it, and I thought I could take it out,” Sullivan said of the purse, “[B]ut then I thought—actually it’s quite a nice thing, a personal thing.” It’s really more than that: it’s her staff of office and her own personal seal. It is her sisterhood with Spear’s Ena. They were worlds apart socially, but they are also two redoubtable women from Britain’s finest hour. God save the Queen.
Postscript: Last night I got home to a note from an artist demanding that I take down her work immediately. The post was old, from a time when it was difficult to link to the artist’s website (because they didn’t have them). Still, there was nothing illegal in my use of the images. I thought about writing back and explaining the Fair Use Exemption to American copyright law. However, that wasn’t her biggest problem.
Most artists are overjoyed to get good reviews. Either she doesn’t understand the value of publicity or hadn’t taken time to read the piece. Unfortunately, in the ensuing years, I’d lost my taste for her work. It’s gone now, the first post I’ve ever deleted at the request of an artist who objected to free publicity.

The client hates the painting

A grateful nation wanted to honor Sir Winston Churchill for his remarkable service. The painting they commissioned was regrettably unsympathetic.
Sir Winston Churchill, by Graham Sutherland
In 1954, Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was winding up his second term of office as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He was one of the most brilliant men of any age: a leader, a soldier, an historian, a writer, and along with all that, a skilled painter. Where he could have gone with an art career had he not been busy saving Western Civilization is anyone’s guess.
Mary’s first speech, by Winston Churchill
Wishing to honor him, the joint Houses of Parliament commissioned a portrait painting by another polymath, Graham Vivian Sutherland. Sutherland was a printmaker, a textile designer, a wartime artist, and a portraitist of some note. He was also known as a modernist, which ought to have struck a warning bell. For all his complexity and brilliance, Churchill was deeply orthodox.
Sutherland was paid 1000 guineas. This needs explaining. The guinea had been officially removed from circulation more than a hundred years earlier. However, luxury goods like art, couturier clothing, horses, and fine furniture were quoted in guineas right through the late 20th century. A guinea was 21 shillings, and that equaled about $35,000 in today’s money. The fee was paid entirely by donations from members of the joint Houses.
W. Somerset Maugham, by Graham Sutherland
To date, Sutherland’s most famous portrait commission had been of the writer W. Somerset Maugham. Sutherland’s fans thought him honest; others considering him cold. In retrospect, his portraits seem almost to be caricatures.
Churchill wanted to be shown in the chivalric robes of the Order of the Garter. However, the commission specified that he be shown in his usual parliamentary dress.
Abraham Lincoln, by Daniel Chester French
Sutherland was methodical in his preparation. He traveled to the Churchill home, Chartwell, to make charcoal and oil studies, doing the final work in his studio. The pose was meant to quote Daniel Chester French’s monumental portrait of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial. However, in its odd miasma of dreary monochrome, Sutherland’s painting was oddly unheroic. It was just an old man, struggling out of his chair.
That was a bad note to strike, even if it did resonate with the nation’s own sense of exhaustion. Unknown to the public, Churchill had recently had a stroke. He was feeling sensitive about his health.
Clementine Churchill brought a photograph of the completed portrait back to her husband ten days before the public ceremony at Westminster. Churchill hated it, calling it “filthy” and “malignant”. His fellow Conservative Charles Doughty convinced him that he had to accept it, since rejecting it would offend the donors.
In his speech, Churchill, ever the wit, described the likeness as “a remarkable example of modern art.” Although it was intended to hang in Parliament, Churchill immediately took it back to Chartwell with him, where it was stashed away.
Lord Goodman, by Graham Sutherland
In 1978, it was revealed that Lady Churchill had asked her secretary to destroy the painting. Grace Hamblin was the Churchill’s loyal private secretary for more than 40 years. She and her brother burned the painting on a large bonfire in the back garden of his house.
Biographer Sonia Purnell has described Lady Churchill as “ruthless” in protecting her late husband’s legacy. Because the painting didn’t represent her own image of her husband, “it had to go.” That disregards the fact that he hated it as much as she.
Sutherland later described the disposal of the portrait as an “act of vandalism.” Certainly no artist wants to see their work destroyed, but in the end a painting is an object, a possession, and the owner has the right to destroy it.

The art of political domination

Mary, Queen of Scots by Jacob de Wet II, from the Great Gallery at Holyrood Palace.

Mary, Queen of Scots by Jacob de Wet II, from the Great Gallery at Holyrood Palace.
Edinburgh’s Palace of Holyroodhouse is apparently where the Queen stores the motley family geegaws that don’t fit in her other palaces. There is one room that should be of interest to art aficionados, however—the Great Gallery, which originally served as the Palace’s privy gallery and is still used for state occasions. Its decorating scheme revolves around a monumental series of portraits of the Scottish monarchs, beginning with the legendary Fergus I (who is said to have ruled Scotland from 330 BC) and ending with Charles II.
This series of paintings was intended to endorse the ancient, venerable and divinely-appointed line of the Stuarts. It told the viewer that their rule would ensure peace and prosperity for Scotland. It was done as part of Charles’ extensive restoration of the Palace after it was burned by Cromwell’s soldiers in 1650.
The portraits were done by Dutch Golden Age painter Jacob de Wet II in an act of unrivalled hard work. There is nothing incisive or unique about them, nor could there be: he churned 110 of them out at the rate of one every two weeks, working non-stop on the project from 1684 to 1686.
The Scottish king Dorna Dilla, by Jacob de Wet II, from the Great Gallery at Holyrood Palace.

The Scottish king Dorna Dilla, by Jacob de Wet II, from the Great Gallery at Holyrood Palace.
Charles II was de Wet’s principal patron. The king never saw the work; after his Scottish coronation in 1651, His Royal Highness hightailed it south and stayed there. De Wet’s portrait of Charles II was done from other likenesses. In fact, Holyrood Palace never commissioned a state portrait from any of the great painters of the day, and certainly not from either of the two great  Principle Painters in Ordinary to the KingSir Peter Lely and Sir Godfrey Kneller. That tells us exactly where Holyrood and Edinburgh ranked in the politics of the day.
Back to humble Jacob de Wet, then. He was first hired in 1673 by Sir William Bruce, the King’s Surveyor and Master of Works in Scotland. De Wet produced a series of classical history paintings for the newly-rebuilt state apartments at Holyrood. Many of these paintings remain. After this, he remained in Scotland, doing commercial work for the great and mighty.
The Royal Collection carefully controls images of Holyrood Palace, but here are Jacob de Wet's paintings in situ, courtesy of Susan Abernethy.

Most of Jacob de Wet’s paintings in situ, courtesy of Susan Abernethy.
In 1684 de Wet returned to Holyrood. His contract with the Royal Cashkeeper reads: “The said James de Witte binds and obleidges him to compleately draw, finish, and perfyte The Pictures of the haill Kings who have Reigned over this Kingdome of Scotland, from King Fergus the first King, TO KING CHARLES THE SECOND, OUR GRACIOUS SOVERAIGNE who now Reignes Inclusive, being all in number One hundred and ten.”
Today 97 of the final 111 portraits are on display in the Great Gallery.  They were loosely based on a series of 109 Scottish kings painted by George Jamesone in honor of Charles I’s Scottish coronation in 1633. Such of Jameson’s work as survived civil war were sent to Holyrood for de Wet to copy. De Wet relied on these, on George Buchanan’s list of Scottish kings, and on other source material. If he used any models at all, they were completely interchangeable, for there is nothing characteristic about those ancient faces.
The scale of de Wet’s achievement is unique. While he may never be remembered for his delicacy of brushwork or incisive understanding of character, he deserves recognition for having finished at all.
On leaving Holyrood, I remarked that, were I forced to live there, I’d abdicate. The weight of those ancient stones is not romantic to me; it’s oppressive. Apparently, I’m not the only person who sees historic privilege as a burden, as this sad obituary states.
I intended to post regularly from Scotland, but the internet defeated me. My mobile’s problem I sort of get; it’s elderly (all of two years). My laptop generally travels well. Its refusal to acknowledge wifi at our destinations was baffling.
Nonetheless, I’m home and working this morning after that new tradition of modern air travel: the short hop that becomes a 24-hour dance contest.
We flew with a Canadian carrier just to avoid this, and they were, in all things, far kinder than their American cousins in similar circumstances. A delay in Edinburgh caused a missed connection in Toronto that in turn revealed our luggage to have strayed, resulting in an additional delay in Montreal for Customs declarations. This meant we left the airport at rush hour, which in turn meant a climb over Grafton Notch at night when the wee sleekit moose were in motion. We left our flat in Edinburgh at 6 AM GMT and arrived at home at 1 AM EST, meaning 24 hours of travel. If I don’t make sense, that’s why.

Paint what you love

Daddy’s little helper, oil on Belgian linen, 14X18, by Carol L. Douglas
When I’ve laid off painting for a while, I “play scales” to limber up. Usually that’s in the form of a still life, but yesterday I decided to paint my grandson, Jake. Jake is three months old, and painting babies is decidedly out of my comfort zone. But if you want to be energized as an artist, paint what you love.
Yesterday’s post about consistency sparked a lively discussion on Facebook. Cindy Zaglin said, “I’ve been told people should be able to look at a group of work and know it’s yours (or someone else’s.) But I like the freedom of experimenting and sometimes a piece will not look like my other work. I wonder how to marry ‘brand’ and experimentation.”
As always, I start with an oil grisaille. The gridding is because I needed to doublecheck the proportions of that massive head. Even so, in the final rendering, I couldn’t believe it, and I narrowed his head slightly (and incorrectly).
Cindy doesn’t have to worry; her work is iconic and highly recognizable. She has wide latitude in subject because her style is rock solid. That doesn’t mean she hasn’t grown and changed in the decade I’ve known her. The important thing is that those changes were incremental, not a frenzied trying on of different techniques.
If you can put into concrete terms what is unique about your paint handling, then you probably don’t have a style, but an affectation. In other words, “I always leave big patches of raw canvas showing,” would be an affectation, whereas, “I start off intending to be super careful but inevitably a fury takes over and I’m left with this mess” is probably more of a mature style.
No matter what I am painting, I approach it the same way. Same primer, same brushes, same underpainting, same pigments, same medium. For this reason, my portrait of Jake is stylistically linked to my paintings of sailboats at Camden Harbor, even though the subjects are worlds apart. And of course, this painting is slyly political, as so many of my paintings are. (I like the quaint idea of fathers married to babies’ mothers.)
After the gridding, I filled in masses, and from there worked in more detail. In short, the usual, regardless of the subject.
“Brand is both an identifier and a trap,” said Jane Bartlett. “I’ve seen celebrated artists who are trapped by what they have created and become known by, especially painters. The audience they built leaves the moment significant changes are made either in subject matter or paint application. It’s as though they are starting over. The loss of audience drives them back to what they had been doing and often to boredom.”
I think of that as the Hello Kitty-ism of art. Tom Otterness’ The Creation Myth, at Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery, is a case in point. It’s interchangeable with all his other public works. There are, sadly, too many visual artists who have commodified themselves in this way. They may as well be stamping out engine blocks at Ford.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

Victorian Death Portraits

The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing. (Marcus Aurelius)
I’ve been reminded of that a lot this week as I watch a friend struggle with her husband’s end-stage cancer. It makes one keenly aware that life isn’t exactly a picnic.
There is a misunderstanding that Victorian parents were somehow distanced from their children because they lost so darn many of them. 19thcentury literature, with its recurrent cry of loss, tells us otherwise. It was a period of great innovation but death rates did not drop; in fact it was the Dark Ages of child mortality in the western world. Urbanization, industrialization, poverty, war and unsanitary obstetrical practices were ruthless killers of people of all ages, but especially children.
If you were wealthy, you could hire a sculptor to immortalize your late son in marble, as here, in the Blocher Memorial in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo.
Consumption, or tuberculosis, was the “family attendant” in all too many Victorian households:
I paid a sad call at the Worths where 2 children seem to be at the point of dying, the poor terrible little baby has constant fits & little Madge two years old, who has been ill 12 days with congestion of the lungs. This is the second time I’ve seen them in this illness…we went into next door where we saw poor little Miss Lee evidently very near the end, but sweet and affectionate as ever. (Louisa Baldwin’s diary, 26 April 1870)
If you were middle-class, your posthumous family portrait was done in daguerreotype.
The spread of the daguerreotype photographic process made portraiture more commonplace, but until late in the century most people had never been photographed. This was especially true of children. To the parent who had unsuccessfully nursed a beloved child through a cruel illness, the steady slow erasure of memory was the final blow.
These portraits were not ghoulish memento mori; they were keepsakes to remember specific people. The practice remained in vogue until Rochester’s own George Eastman standardized photography equipment and film, making picture-taking an everyday art form.
Early examples took advantage of the slow exposure of daguerreotypes (and the required stiffness of their posing) to make the subject look lifelike. The deceased was photographed in poses with living family members, braced on furniture, or with a favorite toy.

The family grouping with dead child would probably be the only photo of the kids together.
There was very little palliative care for the dying Victorian. Most people died in their homes. Yet the idea of assisted suicide or “death with dignity” would have been inconceivable to them. It is a thoroughly modern concept.
I have done one death portrait, of a newborn baby. I don’t have a photo of it since I delivered it hurriedly to the family, but it was (I think) one of the most important things I’ve ever painted. It is rare that artists have the chance to help with healing.

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Just a travelin’ man

Midsummer dance, Anders Zorn, 1903

This morning I’m off with my pal Brad Marshall to see Anders Zorn: Sweden’s Master Painter at the National Academy. Before Brad suggested this, I knew absolutely nothing about Zorn. That’s ironic, because at the turn of the last century he was one of the world’s most renowned painters. In fact, he painted three American presidents: Grover Cleveland (and his wife), William Taft, and Theodore Roosevelt, along with many other of the social luminati of the time.

Portrait of Hugo Reisinger, Anders Zorn, 1907
Anders Zorn was raised on the family farm in rural Sweden. He studied at local grammar schools before enrolling in the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts.  His painting and social skills must have been prodigious, because he rapidly became a luminary in the Stockholm art world. His wife, Emma, was from a wealthy and cultured family; they met through his work.
Not content to be a big fish in a small pond, Zorn traveled to the world’s major cultural centers.  He was feted internationally while still in his twenties. (He in turn became a notable art patron upon his return to Sweden.)
Sensitive to cold, Anders Zorn, 1894.
Like John Singer Sargent, Zorn was a highly-skilled watercolorist; like Sargent and Joachim Sorolla, he was known for his loose, lyrical paint handling. Unlike them, his fame has flamed out, at least here in the United States.  What will I think of his work? Only one way to find out.
Anders Zorn: Sweden’s Master Painter runs until May 18, 2014 at the National Academy of Art, XX Park Avenue, New York, NY.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Belfast, Maine in August, 2014 or in Rochester at any time. Click 
here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Awkward Family Portraits

Portraits of HRH Queen Elizabeth (2010), HRH Prince Charles (1998) and HRH Prince Philip (1998). Rupert Alexander managed to make them look like three troubled executives from a not-too-reputable family business.
Much hay was made over the remarkable resemblance of Paul Emsley’s Kate, Duchess of Cambridgeto the Breck Girls, but it is by no means the worst of this generation of royal portraits.

Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, 2013, by Paul Emsley

There is a wealth of brilliant portraiture of British monarchs from Owain Glyndŵr on.The current regime has been painted as frequently as any royal family, but the results are generally mediocre.

Queen Elizabeth II, 2001 was apparently more about Lucian Freud’s inner man than the Queen’s. Or at least about his Five O’Clock Shadow.
Anthony Van Dyke expressed Charles I’s sovereignty through his natural mastery of both the gentlemanly and kingly virtues. Hans Holbein the Younger used luxurious clothing, posture and symbols to assert the kingship of Henry VIII. The modern portrait artist eschews props, and seeks to say something about the inner man. But when the inner man is subservient to the public man (as in the case of monarchy), that idea seems to fail.

Portrait of William and Harry in the dress uniform of the Household Cavalry by Nicky Philipps, 2009, strikes the right balance between their public image and their formal roles. 
There are a few exceptions to this. Portrait of William and Harry in the dress uniform of the Household Cavalry by Nicky Philipps strikes the right balance between the princes’ formal roles and their public images. It is casual and yet respectful, and it will further the narrative of the Handsome Young Princes long after they are middle-aged men.

Duke of Edinburgh, 2002, by Richard Stone.

Richard Stone’s Duke of Edinburgh hearkens back to earlier virtues in its iconic pose and unapologetic chest full of medals. Jeff Stultiens’ immense portrait of the queen gives her the dignity of rank.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for Oriel College, Oxford, 2003, by Jeff Stultiens
But the best portrait among them is amateur, gawky and surprisingly lovely: it’s by the Duke of Edinburgh and depicts the Queen reading the paper at the breakfast table. She is neither part of her surroundings nor overwhelmed by them; she is just doing her job. Of all her portraits, it’s the only one in which she looks comfortable in her own skin.

Her Majesty the Queen at Breakfast, 1957, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!