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Portrait/Self-Portrait: Selections from the Permanent Collection

May 21 - November 24, 2002

 

Artists have long been fascinated with the human face, including the representation of their own image. The portrait, in particular, remains a fertile vehicle for communicating both personal stories and universal concerns. This selection of works from the Permanent Collection reveals a wide range of response to the challenge of depicting one's own identity through realistic interpretation or symbolic representation. (left: George Healy, Portrait of Mathilda Hitchcock Knowlton, 1868, oil on canvas, Gift of Mary Knowlton)

Spanning the mid-nineteenth century to the present are miniature wedding portraits of Anne Morgan Horsman and Charles Imeson Horsman by Jacques Deb Delborra, two portraits by Rockford artist George Robertson, as well as contemporary works by Rapheal Soyer, and Rockford natives Mike Lash and Mart Herbig.

Portrait/Self-Portrait is a rich revelation of possibility within the artist's grasp of highly personal subject and execution. Contrasts in depiction are evident in Suzanna Coffey's stark self-portrait, Reginald Marshes' languidly posed Portrait of the Artist's Wife, and the symbolic Just David, Self-Portrait After Malevich by David Russick.

 

From the Exhibition -- Portrait of Alex Strachan, by George Robertson

In mid-19th century America, portraiture was ranked high in esteem, second only to history painting, in the hierarchy of celebrated art genres. The success of both established portrait studios and itinerant portraitists -- or limners -- is proof that the nationwide demand for painted portraits remained strong with the advent of photography. These artists recorded the character of an evolving nation as seen in the faces of its people. At their very best these early portraits, such as George Robertson's extraordinary Portrait of Alex Strachan, serve as both a historical document of our nation and an intimate glimpse into an individual personality. (left: George Robertson (1810-1894), Portrait of Alex Strachan, oil on canvas, 36 x 30 inches, 1886, Gift of William M. Strachan Estate)

George J. Robertson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1810, the son of a Presbyterian minister. He studied at the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts in London from 1826 to 1836, exhibiting there regularly alongside John Constable and other important English artists of the day until 1836. Robertson came to America in 1842 and worked in Cleveland and Milwaukee before settling in Rockford in the mid-1850s. He is listed as a portrait painter in city directories beginning as early as 1857 and is most likely Rockford's first resident professional artist.

From 1860 to 1886, Robertson served as the first head of the Art Department at The Rockford Female Seminary School, now Rockford College. There he introduced elements of his academic training such as the study of anatomy and the drawing of plaster casts of Classical sculpture. A key figure in the area's cultural development, he was a member of the early Rockford Sketch Club and participated in its first exhibition in 1888. Although best known for his sensitive portraits, Robertson was accomplished at landscape painting as well, producing some extraordinary views of the city in its infancy.

Executed late in the artist's career, Portrait of Alex Strachan is one of the Robertson's most accomplished portraits. Strachan, a botanist and the foreman of the I. S. Shearman Nursery in Rockford, is depicted with a colorful bouquet of posies in his hand. In the manner of traditional English portraiture, he is seated in front of a bucolic landscape which is punctuated in the distance by floral garden beds, another sign of the sitter's trade. Robertson captures Strachan's pleasant nature through the glint in his eyes and the subtle curve of his lips, capturing an endearing image of a man in harmony with Nature.

Two decades prior to this portrait, Robertson painted a charming picture of Alex Strachan's house and nursery located at 1405 South West Street in Rockford. Astride a path leading to the greenhouse we can discern the tiny figure of the young Mr. Strachan with a watering can in his hand. Facing us, he stands as a proud caretaker of his acre of paradise. Portrait of Alex Strachan and House of Alex Strachan are among eleven Robertson paintings in the Museum's Permanent Collection, many gifted from heirs of the artist and his sitters. They comprise a vivid glimpse into Rockford's past by one of the region's most remarkable painters.

Portrait of Alex Strachan is on view in the exhibition Portrait/Self-Portrait in Anderson Gallery from May 21 to September 15, 2002.

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