Portraiture...

Every time I paint a portrait, I lose a friend.  John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)

Early American Settlers were initially caught up in a rush toward nation building from scratch... Art was irrelevant to the practical task at hand. Besides, Art didn’t settle well with these Protestant pioneers. As a vehicle for sensual pleasure it was tinged with the flames of sin. Plus, it still referred back to the decadent culture of the European aristocracy  and  Catholics, their religious arch-rivals. Nevertheless, they overcame their negative attitude with the Portrait. This was a subject that had the appearance of the concrete, someone (or something) that existed precisely in this world, just like them. No mythology, didactic historical moments, or abstract cautionary tales... only the observed facts were wanted, and the more specific the better.

In keeping with their basic value system, the Portrait was useful. It was a subject that was used often to permanently document family members and social heros who lived brief, transitory lives in this dangerous New World. Collectively the succession of Portraits created a historical record of the players in this democratic experiment. This included a visual documentation of the new American aristocracy, something that placed  painters like Sargent and William Merritt Chase high in the pantheon of artists.  

All together our Portraitists have given us a Portrait of America. (Today this ongoing visual history is commemorated in the National Portrait Gallery). As time has moved forward, and Sigmund Freud has had his say, artists have expanded the Portrait’s predominant recording function to include the investigation of the interior life of the sitter. (Another way to express our National obsession with individualism.) The modern Portrait attempts to give a more complete and telling message of the sitter. 

In my particular case the Portrait is a rich subject of convenience. I am not concerned with the issues of personality or recording even if there is some unintended evidence of their presence. Rather I find my head an easily accessible subject which I can analyze in terms of physical anatomy, formal dynamics (e.g. line, tone, color, proportions, etc.) and spatial interaction with its’ environment. Not to over simplify, but the majority of technical problems that one faces in making Art can be addressed in the Portrait. For me the Portrait is a great, comprehensive learning tool. And, it always waits within my mirror to challenge me. - GC


© Gene Cooper 2020 gandpcoop@earthlink.net