In the Face of Change

by Jennifer Bailey Forbes


Despite Europe's preoccupation with elements of abstraction in the early twentieth century, artists in America were still strongly working in a figural mode.[12] Robert Henri, although certainly not avant-garde in comparison to some of his European contemporaries, did much to loosen the grip of conservative forces in the prevailing art institutions. An extremely influential teacher, his work promoted a bold technique and interest in the urban environment and its peoples. Letecia marks Henri's characteristic ability to capture the vital essence and personality of his sitter, without allusions to flattery, society, or place. By 1903 Henri's chief artistic output was portraiture.[13] Letecia was painted during the time period the artist made yearly trips to Ireland and Irish children became his primary subjects. Henri very much admired Europeans Diego Velázquez (Spanish, 1599-1660) and Frans Hals (Dutch, c.1850-1666) and took from them their painterly brushwork, somber palettes, and ambiguous backgrounds. Letecia is executed in a subdued palette and still maintains the somber and shadowy background of his earliest portraits. Henri has also kept the composition simple and devoid of distracting elements -- save a few flourishes of color -- focusing on the expression and characterization of the subject. Henri painted the everyday people of his world and sought to express the idiosyncrasies of true personalities and character, rather than gloss over or mask them. [14]

When a group of Henri's fellow artists and students were rejected from the National Academy of Design, Henri organized an exhibition of the work, including his own, which opened at the Macbeth Gallery in 1908. Titled simply, The Eight, artists included Henri, William Glackens, John Sloan, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, Ernest Lawson, Arthur B. Davies, and Everett Shinn. Executed in a looser, more painterly style, the paintings depicted gritty scenes of urban reality and the uglier aspects of New York life. The exhibition received encouraging reviews (alongside many negative ones), was extremely well-attended, and a commercial success -- Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney bought several works from the show, including one of Henri's portraits. Other venues were even interested in showcasing the exhibition. The "Eight Rebels" signaled a significant change in American art by breaking down the academic barriers of acceptable art and resisting the rigid control of the Academy -- a not so quiet harbinger of what was to come with the 1913 Armory Show. [15]

Several of the artists dubbed as members of "The Eight" were also members of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, the group instrumental in organizing the 1913 Armory Show. Arthur B. Davies was president of the AAPS at the time along with George Luks and Everett Shinn who were also active in organizing the exhibition. The Armory Show truly challenged the traditional American notions of art and introduced elements of the European avant-garde on a massive scale to the American public.[16] European artists such as Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, and Marcel Duchamp were shown for the first time in America at the Armory Show. Armed with examples of Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, and even Futurism, the Armory Show set new standards and new boundaries for modern American art.

American artists were unable to escape the noise of modernism and abstract aesthetics. As a result, even artists working in a figural and representational mode incorporated aspects of this new influence into their work. Leon Kroll, known for his female nudes, turned towards depicting his models in a more structural and geometric vocabulary. Kroll very clearly did not work in an abstract style, however his paintings focused on formal qualities that steered him away from a true realism and concern with likeness. Kroll was intrigued by the pattern, color, and forms of the nude, rather than the actual person or individual. He stated that "[t]he pattern of the nude always fascinates methe amazing variety of form and color seems inexhaustible..."[17] Albeit Kroll's figures are identifiable and still depicted in a representational manner, James W. Lane commented "it is the structure he abstracts." [18]

Although many artists did absorb some of the modern currents of the time and discovered a newfound freedom in them, other artists such as Grant Wood and his fellow Regionalist painters rejected abstraction and modernist aesthetics, and attempted to create a national style based in realism. Wood did travel Europe, but it was his trip to Munich in 1928 that truly influenced and changed his aesthetic. In Munich, he was exposed to the Neue Sachlichkeit, or the New Objectivity movement.[19] These artists rejected abstraction and championed a realistic aesthetic. Wood's Portrait of John B. Turner Pioneer is his one of his first works in this new aesthetic -- highly delineated and meticulously detailed scenes of everyday people and life centered around his Iowa home. In an interview, Wood stated "[a]fter all, I lived in Paris a couple of years myself... But I came back because I learned that French painting is very fine for French people and not necessarily for us, and because I started to analyze what it was I really knew, I found out. It's Iowa."[20] John B. Turner was one of Wood's first patrons, financing his trips to Europe and then providing him with studio space and commissions. Wood depicts Turner in a business suit, with a searing expression. A true and sincere representation of the prosperous businessman he was, Turner is depicted in front of an early map of Cedar Rapids, a symbol of the frontier he was instrumental in developing.

Despite the Regionalist's campaign for a return to realism and an art that would characterize the nation, modernist trends were still pushing aesthetics and styles away from that very thing -- especially in regard to the traditional portrait. Mark Rothko perfectly characterized the path of portraiture in a broadcast radio interview in 1943 (one year after Grant Wood's death) where he specifically discussed portraiture and declared "[t]he modern artist has, in varying degrees, detached himself from appearance in nature."[21] He went on to state that words used to classify art, such as portrait or portraiture, have lost the definitions and descriptive qualities they used to hold. However, he asserts that the perpetuation of the word "portrait" is due to the "artist's eternal interest in the human figure, character, and emotions," in other words, "the human drama." Rothko concluded his discussion with the sentiment:

"Today the artist is no longer constrained by the limitation that all of man's experience is expressed by his outward appearance. Freed from the need of describing a particular person, the possibilities are endless. The whole of man's experience becomes his model, and in that sense, it can be said that all of art is a portrait of an idea." [22]

Before developing his signature non-objective style, Rothko's early works of the 1920s and 1930s were largely figurative works of nudes, portraits, and urban cityscapes. His painting Portrait from 1936 illustrates his attitude that portraiture should be freed from describing a particular person and their likeness. Rothko's figure is distorted, flattened, and appears crudely executed, reflecting his interest in primitivism and children's art.[23] Rothko's interpretation of the portrait demonstrates not only the formal influences of modernism and abstraction, but also the new use of the genre as a vehicle for the artist's own aesthetic concerns and characterization of the subject, rather than a descriptive rendering of physical appearance.

As portraiture became disengaged from physical representation and likeness, artists began using the genre to investigate issues beyond the surface of their subjects. George Tooker's figurative work characteristically depicts his subjects with repetitive and generalized forms. In his Self-Portrait there are just enough individualized features to characterize the artist, however the overall shapeless and ghost-like quality of the visage is typical of all his figures. The physical nature of his subjects suggest figures that are almost un-real. Tooker has stated "I am after painting reality impressed on the mind so hard that it returns as a dream... but I am not after painting dreams as such, or fantasy."[24] The real content and purpose of Tooker's work lies in the feelings of isolation, alienation, emptiness, and the social commentary, that his figures create -- not their realism or mimesis of an actual person.

The powerful portraits painted by Alice Neel rely very much on their resemblance and representation of the sitter, but she, too, is creating an image that moves beyond mere description. Alice Neel was an expressive figure and portrait painter whose themes tackled everything from issues of the family to conditions of urban society. Many of her subjects were nudes, and her realistic, figurative subjects were again against the grain of the prevalent Abstract Expressionism. She remained committed to a mode that was basically representational, but her compelling and intimate works relentlessly unearthed the character and psychology of her subjects. Neel's figures typically feature pronounced outlines, bold, flat color, and a rich yet distinct modeling of skin that presents an unnerving immediacy. "A collector of souls," as Neel once referred to herself, the overwhelming physicality of her depictions lays bare all that is beautiful and ugly in her sitters. [25]Through her eyes of experience and under her searing observation, Neel's subjects wear their emotions and personalities, as well as their physical and psychological wounds for all to see.

Working contemporaneously with Neel in the 1960s and 1970s was Andy Warhol, who took a very different approach to portraiture. Almost exactly opposite of Neel's style and aesthetic, Warhol appropriated news and media images of celebrities and public figures for many of his portraits. Simultaneously commenting on popular culture and the power of mass media in creating and perpetuating ideas of celebrity, Warhol's portraits had no basis in realism, the subject's character, or a true representative likeness. His portraits and images, such as those iconic canvases of Marilyn Monroe, flaunt the techniques and means of mass-production, underscoring an artificiality and repetitive sameness of features.[26] In doing so, Warhol altogether removed his subjects from any accessibility into their individual natures, lives, or characters. In terms of his content, methods and process, Warhol's motivations and creations were entirely detached from any aim of traditional portraiture. He used his portraits to cynically critique the mass media machine and comment on the nature of popular culture.

Continuing this process of transforming the contemporary portrait, artists have further used the genre as a vital means to explore a variety of media, processes, and purposes. Artists such as Susan Hauptman and Joan Brown, albeit through different styles and materials, both tackle issues of personal identity, relationships, and introspection through their unconventional representations of themselves. Chuck Close uses larger-than-life faces of friends and family to tackle competing ideas about perception, illusion, and reality. In his extraordinary prints, such as Lyle, Close offers an almost hyper-realistic image that, upon closer inspection, disintegrates into grids of abstraction. In yet another take on the concept of the portrait, artist Jay Wittenberg has engaged in a series of portraits depicting historical literary women, primarily poets, who have inspired him. In works such as Ms. Eliot, Wittenberg not only references history through his subject matter (women he has had absolutely no interaction with other than their written word), but also through his execution of the image. Ms. Eliot is shown tightly drawn, with a somber expression, and depicted in muted tones, recalling images from old daguerreotypes.

Contemporary portraiture has also continued to embrace sculpture as a vehicle for expression. Moving from more traditional representations such as Gaston Lachaise's Portrait of John Marin to Marisol's folk art inspired Magritte VI, artists are grappling with the same issues of representation, identity, social commentary, celebrity, and history in a three dimensional format. Moving one more step forward, Antonio Pazzi's sculptures function as portraits of emotion and memory. Devoid of any human form or representation, Berlinda consists solely of a child's dress. Given the title, a person's name, the work is meant to act as a "portrait" of the individual's presence and experience.

Looking back to, and beginning with, Sargent, the new concerns of modern artists and modern society pushed portraiture from its traditional definitions. No longer tied to preserving or representing a likeness of a particular subject or sitter in the wake of abstraction, the notions of modernity have infused portraiture with broader purposes. Portraiture now includes works that investigate social issues and social commentary, the identity and psychology of both artist and sitter, celebrity, and the process of portrait-making itself. Open to all facets of aesthetic interpretations, and on equal footing with all other art, contemporary portraiture truly has become "a portrait of an idea."


Go to:


Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library.for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2008 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.