Art of portrait painting is alive, well, and incorporated
New York — ALMOST everyone would like to have his or her portrait painted. Not only is it a sign of accomplishment and social position, it is also one of our best guarantees that future generations will know who we were and what we looked like. If we can get someone important to paint us, all the better. After all, who would remember Giovanni Arnolfini, Margaretha Trip, or Dr. Gachet today if Van Eyck, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh hadn't painted them? Even kings and emperors preferred to be depicted by painters in line for artistic immortality. It certainly did Henry VIII and Charles V no harm to have themselves recorded for posterity by Van Dyck and Titian, just as it was helpful to Napoleon to have himself portrayed as a mighty emperor by David.
Our own chances of being painted by a well-known or famous artist, however, are slight. Not only do few of them do portraits; most of those who try lack the special talents this kind of art requires. No, if it's good,
solid portraiture we want, our best bet lies with the
professionals, with those painters whose specialty is the human likeness, and who can produce it in a manner that does justice both to the sitter and to the traditions of the art form.
But how do we find them? Few advertise, and even fewer exhibit in regular gallery or museum shows. Unless an acquaintance can recommend one, or we hear of one in the neighborhood, our chances of being ``done'' in oils by a professional are slim indeed.
It was for just this reason that Portraits Inc. was founded in 1942, and why it remains the central clearinghouse for commissioned paintings and sculptures of individuals and groups in America. Its New York gallery is the only one in the world devoted exclusively to portraiture, and it can be visited by anyone interested in examining the wide range of styles available in the field today. The works on view and on file are by both solidly established and emerging painters and sculptors, and vary considera bly in style, size, technique, and cost. If money is no object, one can find something for as much as $75,000. If it is, $1,500 will do nicely for a small picture by a lesser-known artist.
Because of the wide variety of works on view at Portraits Inc., the process of choosing the most appropriate style and artist is generally pleasant and convenient. The exhibition galleries contain a rotating selection of paintings, pastels, watercolors, drawings, and sculpture in marble and bronze, and in styles that range from the precisely realistic to the lyrically impressionistic, and from the most casual to the type of formal portrait traditionally associated with solid achievements in government, business, or the professions. In addition, each artist is represented by some photographs of other commissioned pieces. Pertinent information on his or her background, experience, and accomplishments is also available.
Should a visit to New York prove impossible for the future client, the selection of an artist and all business arrangements can be made by mail. One of the first things to be decided, of course, is where the actual posing will take place. In this, as in most other matters pertaining to commissioned portraits, no hard rules apply. Whatever is agreeable to both parties is acceptable to Portraits Inc., whether it requires several visits to the artist's studio or a series of sittings in the client's home.
``It is important to remember,'' states Rob Bucklin, vice-president of sales, ``that the choice of artist is up to the client. Over 100 painters and sculptors are affiliated with us, making it more than likely that he or she will find just the right person to do the portrait. In any event, satisfaction is guaranteed.''
According to Mr. Bucklin, the most frequently painted subjects are men, primarily because universities, banks, business organizations, and hospitals continue the tradition of commissioning portraits for offices and board rooms. Several of the most impressive examples currently on view fall into this category, and constitute the best indication that the tradition of the formal portrait is alive and doing reasonably well.
Pictures of children make up the second-largest category, presenting the client with the widest selection of styles. Women, on the other hand -- largely because the traditional drawing-room portrait so popular at the turn of the century is no longer considered a social necessity -- are the least frequently painted. They are, however, the subjects of an increasing number of informal studies, and interest in compositions featuring a mother with her children remains steady.
The most controversial aspect of contemporary portraiture has to do with quality. There are those who insist it has fallen on hard times, that it is unfailingly conservative, if not actually reactionary, and that it remains militantly out of touch with most vital modernist trends. A few critics even claim that its technical standards are dismally low.
Like all sweeping generalizations, this one is at best only partly true -- and then deceptively so. Most commissioned portraits today are ``conservative,'' if by that we mean that the emphasis is on likeness, overall attractiveness, and a painterly performance that focuses attention more on the subject than on itself. Furthermore, since those are its objectives, and it makes no claims to modernist ``relevancy,'' it remains -- as it should -- divorced from the theorizings and posturings tha t occupy so much of today's gallery and museum world.
We may have no Eakins or Sargent doing portraits at this time, but we do have a large number of good to excellent painters and draftsmen (I'm considerably less convinced about our portrait sculptors) who do commissioned work exclusively or occasionally. Quite a few of these are associated with Portraits Inc. The fact that all too many portraits are of mediocre or poor quality should not be held against the profession as a whole -- any more than the fact that the majority of modernist paintings are undis tinguished should be used as an argument against modernism.
As for technical standards, one quick glance at the works on view at Portraits Inc. should dispel any doubts one might have in that area. All are extremely well done, and several can only be described as technically first rate.
For those interested in further information, Portraits Inc. has prepared a brochure that includes some excellent color reproductions of works by several of its artists. The price is $1, and the address is 985 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028.