Arts & Culture

Does the Painted Portrait Stand a Chance In the Age of Social Media?

Should paintings of the rich and powerful help shape the truth or expose it?
IMAGE LUCIAN FREUD ARCHIVE/ DAVID DAWSON PHOTOGRAPHER/ BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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While pundits are still debating which of Barack Obama’s policies might make it through the current administration unscathed, the 44th president made one decision in recent months that will serve to cement his legacy for generations to come: He chose a portraitist.

Late last year it was announced that Obama’s official portrayal, which will hang in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, will be painted by Kehinde Wiley, who is famous for recreating classical works to feature contemporary black subjects and whose paintings are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and LACMA.

Michelle Obama’s official portrait will be by the painter Amy Sherald, a rising talent whose first solo museum show will open in May at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. And while the former first couple’s choices of artist made headlines—it’s the first time black artists have been tapped to paint official presidential portraits for the Smithsonian; the pictures will be unveiled on February 12—the fact that the Obamas were sitting to be painted for posterity makes them part of a long, proud tradition.


The Make Believer (right), 2016, by Amy Sherald. Alios Itzhak (left) by Kehinde Wiley.

Throughout history, artists from El Greco to John Singer Sargent to Andy Warhol have been called upon to paint the rich and famous; many of these commissions have endured as admired works of art. In March, an exhibition of nearly 60 portraits by Paul Ce?zanne will land, after blockbuster showings in Paris and London, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. This is the first show comprised solely of the artist’s portraits since 1910, and it makes the case that the form hasn’t lost its appeal. “Ce?zanne’s portraiture is the most passionately engaged, nervously alert, and psychologically unsettling in art history,” read a review in the Financial Times. The paper went on to call the exhibition “the UK’s greatest painting show of 2017.”

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Before the advent of photography, portraits were intended to depict beauty, with the goal of flattery and, often, catching the eye of a potential suitor. A portrait of Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein the Younger was commissioned in the 16th century as part of the courting process for Henry VIII.

But what is the role of the painted picture in today’s cameraphone culture, with the proliferation of selfies perfected by lighted phone cases and filtering apps? Could brush-to-canvas be an achieved, archived form of the fountain of youth?

Sometimes, but not always. Portraits have an enviable stickiness, a staying power that can literally be passed from one generation to the next. They also make a statement. When the Obamas’ choice of artists was announced, Roberta Smith wrote in the New York Times that the picks “shine a spotlight on the state of American art.”

Because of that longevity, you might understandably think that having yourself painted in the most flattering light (ahem) would be the goal. But before visions of control begin to fill your head, consider this: The thinking among artists today is that anyone willing to indulge your requests for a stronger jaw, a slimmer torso, or a bit more hair is perhaps not the person you want painting you in the first place.

It’s also worth noting that subjects and the artists painting them don’t always see eye to eye. Take the cautionary tale of Winston Churchill. On the occasion of his 80th birthday, the prime minister sat for a commissioned portrait with Graham Sutherland. Churchill, a painter himself, was uneasy with being studied.


The portrait of Winston Churchill


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One of Lynn Wyatt 

His displeasure, reenacted by John Lithgow in an episode of the Netflix series The Crown, became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The resulting portrait showed a seated Churchill looking down at the viewer while his potbelly pushed up into a partially unbuttoned vest. He looked every bit his eight decades, his chin jutting out to reveal a sagging, wrinkled neck. The corners of his mouth were turned down, and he leaned uncomfortably to one side.

At the public unveiling, Churchill quipped that the work was “a remarkable example of modern art.” His wife reportedly had the painting burned.

All of this makes the plight of Helena Rubinstein not only understandable but almost admirable. The Polish-born cosmetics mogul rose to prominence early in the 20th century as something of a pioneer of self-promotion. She used herself to stimulate her business, and that business was beauty. Rubinstein controlled her image to a manic degree, determined to project herself and her products as youth incarnate. Every photograph was retouched, and she was portrayed as flawless in the numerous portraits she commissioned, which hung together on a single wall in her home. French artist Marie Laurencin produced a portrait when Rubinstein was 62 years old, that looks more like a picture of a porcelain doll, nary an imperfection in sight.

And yet Rubinstein was persuaded to sit for Sutherland. She was in her eighties at that point, and Sutherland was well known for the realism of his portrayals. That Churchill had sat for him was a selling point, according to War Paint, the book by Lindy Woodhead that chronicles Rubinstein’s rivalry with Elizabeth Arden and became a show on Broadway last year.

Rubinstein surely knew she would not be able to persuade the artist to indulge any requests, so she rushed to lose weight—downing castor oil, hot grapefruit juice, and black coffee— before her sittings with Sutherland began. So delicate was her constitution that she fell and bruised her face, according to Woodhead. Rubinstein tried to cover her injuries with copious makeup.

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Sutherland channeled that drama into his striking portrait. Rubinstein’s dark hair is pulled back tight, her cheeks flushed with rouge and her lips painted red to match her brocade Balenciaga gown. The finished work “shocked her,” says Mason Klein, who curated an exhibition on Rubinstein for the Jewish Museum in New York. “She was more than taken aback. She was horrified.”


From left: Sutherland

“I look so old...so savage...like a witch!” Rubinstein is quoted as saying in Woodhead’s retelling. It wasn’t until after the portrait received critical praise while on display at London’s Tate Gallery that Rubinstein came to appreciate it.

These days, with the exception of paintings of presidents and first ladies, commissioned portraiture, where the subject seeks out the artist, remains something of a lasting relic of the class structure. “The new money that came into this country had no past with that, so they didn’t support it,” says Margaret Bowland, an artist who is on the faculty of the painting department of the New York Academy of Art.

Cultural sensitivities also come into play, Bowland notes, as self-glorification is not universally celebrated. Annabel Elton, a commissions consultant for the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in the UK, says the group gets more international inquiries from the Middle East than from other, perhaps more modest, parts of Asia. In the U.S., commissions arranged through the aptly named Portraits Inc., which has a gallery on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and represents roughly 150 artists, come primarily from the East Coast and the South, with cities like New York, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Nashville leading the charge, according to Julia Baughman, one of the company’s three owners.

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Commissioned portraits have largely become the territory of two age groups: children, whose youth is idolized by, say, a doting grandparent, and the over-50 set, whose accomplishments or generosity warrant a painting, such as becoming a named partner at a law firm or donating a new wing to a hospital. Portraits of the latter group are often on public display; those for personal use attract a different crowd, says Bowland: “They are megalomaniacs.”

A painting of President Donald Trump, portrayed as a sort of 1980s heartthrob, with sandy blond hair and tanned skin and clad in tennis whites, a ray of light shining over one shoulder, hangs in a wood-paneled room at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach. Painted in 1989 by Ralph Wolfe Cowan, the piece is titled The Visionary.


Cowan's portrait of Donald Trump, which hangs in the president's Florida resort.

It has become the go-to picture proof that one has visited the so-called “Winter White House.” “Everybody likes to have their picture taken in front of it,” says Cowan.

The 85-year-old, who has painted, by his own estimation, thousands of portraits, says he doesn’t try to make his subjects more beautiful. But he does want them to be seen as extremely healthy, as if they just ran a big race. Cowan has certain tricks: smoothing out the neck, for example, or giving the subject better posture.

There have been portrait artists who sought, and continue to seek, ways to distort the human figure (see: Freud, Lucian). But most portraitists active today, especially those navigating the world of commissions, are looking for their own version of beauty. American artist Everett Raymond Kinstler has, at age 91, painted eight U.S. presidents, including Trump. He is adamant that his intent is never to flatter, but he will take artistic license.

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“Nature is not always kind to people,” Kinstler tells me, offering Katharine Hepburn as an example. Her remarkable bone structure, including her widely admired cheekbones and the set of her jaw, began to weaken with age. When Kinstler painted the actress later in life, he sought to restore some of what he had once known. It was a choice he made on his own, he says, not a request from Hepburn.

Kinstler did something similar with President Gerald Ford, whom he painted 10 times over more than two decades. His last portrait, made some 20 years after Ford had left the Oval Office, was infused with what Kinstler remembered of the politician during his tenure in the White House.

Concerns about how one might be portrayed can often be headed off in the selection process. Early stages of commissioned portraits are a bit like online dating, with subjects paging through catalogs by various artists before swiping right on one for a meet-and-greet.

It's not a casual commitment. Portraits require multiple sittings, which often last several hours each. The sittings can become tell-all sessions, artists say, as the subject attempts to fill the silence. History has some delicious tales of feuds between artist and sitter.

Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos commissioned Salvador Dali? for a portrait but then refused to sit for more than a sketch of his face. Dali? retaliated by finishing the painting with a nude figure in the place of Niarchos’s clothed body. When Niarchos refused to pay, the artist sold the work—for more than the commission price—to Niarchos’s rival Aristotle Onassis.


Salvador Dali

British artist Daphne Todd has turned away one or two heavily made-up women who have come her way. “It’s a bit like painting a doll, and dolls aren’t very interesting,” she says. There are society portrait painters, Todd says, who are very open to input.

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A winner of the prestigious BP Portrait Award from the National Portrait Gallery in London, Todd describes herself as another breed, a “warts and all” artist. And, just like a bad date, it can happen that a painter and a subject are mismatched. The head of an Oxbridge college who had been in the post about a year commissioned a portrait from Todd. The woman didn’t want to wait a decade to have the painting done, she explained, for fear she would look 10 years older. And when she came for her sitting she brought earlier photographs of herself. “She picked me because she had seen my work,” Todd says, “but she didn’t really want to buy into the idea.” Todd says she was paid and then was told afterward that the woman “banished the painting to Australia.”

The popularity of photography has helped the art of portraiture, says Jonathan Yeo, the hand behind the presidential portraits in the series House of Cards. There is no longer a need to explain the difference between a painted portrait and a photograph, or to extol the virtues of a painted piece. Anyone who agrees to sit for a portrait already has an understanding of and a respect for the process. (Yeo, who is also based in the UK, rarely does commissions, instead seeking out people he would like to paint.) “The very fact of surrendering yourself and your editorial control to someone else is a brave thing to do, in a way,” he says.

Displeasure with how one looks at any given moment is often a temporary feeling, considering the timelessness of portraits, Yeo notes. Do you go around squinting at museum labels, identifying the date of the portrait and then pulling out your phone to google how old someone was at the time of the painting? Very likely not.

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It’s also a bit presumptuous on the part of the artist to guess what the sitter will or will not like. “I’ve been quite startled sometimes by how much someone has loved something, when I thought it made them look slightly ridiculous,” Yeo says. Furthermore, most people have hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs of themselves, many of them available to the world at large thanks to social media.

Take that and multiply it by 10 for anyone even remotely famous. Painting someone as much more attractive than he is at any given time would be instantly contradicted. And for those unable to remove the age variable from the equation, perhaps take a styling tip from skating star Sonja Henie: “Jewelry takes people’s minds off your wrinkles.”

This story appears in the February 2018 issue of Town & Country.

*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com

*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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