Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on June 1, 2009 with permission of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalog from which it is excerpted, please contact the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute directly through either this phone number or web address:


Portraiture: the 19th and 20th Centuries

By Joseph S. Trovato


This exhibition focuses attention upon people as a subject in art. It is a close-up view of men, women and children, in which we can share the artists' observations and character analyses. In contemplating portraits by creative artists we stand to gain not only the pleasure of aesthetic experience afforded by good paintings, prints, and photographs, but the added value of a fuller understanding of ourselves. We are naturally involved in an exhibition of portraits by the association of ourselves with people or as we may see ourselves mirrored in the portrayal of another person. A portrait emphasizes the individual and brings into sharp focus certain aspects of personality, character, and human relations which have come under the artist's scrutiny.

Kathe Kollwitz' Self-Portrait, for example, evokes an immediate sympathetic reaction as we read in her grief-stricken face a life filled with sadness and, at the same time, a miraculous sense of compassion. The depth of feeling and profundity which is in this lithographic Self-Portrait and in the portrait by Sargent of Mr. and Mrs. John W. Field is equally present in the remarkable photograph of Bertrand Russell by Eisenstaedt and the penetrating Baudelaire by Carjat.

The charming painting by Bellows of his daughter, Anne in a Purple Wrap, directs our attention to family relations. The little girl enters into our presence facing us openly, innocently, and without pretense. A natural feeling of intimacy is transmitted unexpectedly. The photographic portrait of Cole by his father, Edward Weston, displays a similar open and forthright expression of family relationship.

Thomas Eakins had a deep feeling and genius for character portrayal in portrait painting. In his Portrait of Addie he depicts a mature woman seen in a three-quarter view. This painting radiates a spirit of kindliness and warm-heartedness. The head shows a masterly modeling of three-dimensional form by the agent of light, and the reverent glow in the eyes and the sensuous quality of the mouth set themselves in agreeable contrast with it. The sense of form is further heightened by the seemingly casual treatment of the woman's blouse. To a high degree we are made to feel the integrity of the sitter and also that of the artist.

The 19th century saw the development of realism, and the invention of the camera was the logical outcome in answer to the long-felt need or craving to make faithful pictorial representations of people. Realism was an interest in both painting and photography that dealt with the factual aspects of nature, the objective and the visible, rather than with the imaginative implications of forms and objects. It had its counterpart in Impressionism, with its interest in light and the depiction of the instantaneous and informal aspects of everyday life. About the middle of the 19th century, during the early years of photography, many painters and photographers influenced one another. Some of the early photographs such as Principal Haldane by Hill and Adamson show the photographers' debt to painting in their treatment of form, composition, and lighting effects. The robust modeling of the head and the post of Principal Haldane could almost be taken for a portrait by Raeburn. In this photograph the light is used to emphasize the important features, the form of the head, its shape, and its volume. The Theophile Gautier by Nadar could be a painting by Courbet, it is so real, so earthy and matter-of-fact.

The painting of Benjamin Franklin by Charles Willson Peale and the photograph of Daniel Webster by Southworth and Hawes are very similar in point of view. Both emphasize the outer appearances of their subjects, inviting the observer to interpret their characters from their features. For painters, the camera offered suggestions for novel ways of viewing subjects from various angles of vision and for unusual compositional arrangements. Photography also provided, as it still does, a store of reference material for pictorial ideas. For example, the 20th-century portrait by Gorky of The Artist and His Mother was painted from a snapshot taken when he was a boy.

From the traditional and stylistic idealization of the Hoppner, the Vanderlyn and the Vigee-Lebrun, there was a turn to a more romantic approach. In portraiture, it emphasized the depiction of particular likeness and natural gesture. The photograph of Elizabeth Johnstone by Hill and Adamson and that of Dufaure by Salomon serve to illustrate this emphasis. Gericault's portrait of The Madman-Kidnapper is a penetrating study of a demented person, and the cold stare of the eyes transmits with alarming immediacy a state of mind. At the same time, we are led to feel sympathy for the subject. This is one of a series of insane people Gericault painted for a doctor friend.

In contrast to those works noted above, the Woman in a Yellow Shawl by Fowler has a directness and simplicity of expression. An example of American primitive or itinerant portrait painting, it has no pretensions. It is a simple, direct statement of a person.

A portrait inevitably combines something of the artist's personality with that of the sitter, and the painter or photographer is at his best when a sitter provides affinities or qualities he possesses or admires. The demands of the sitter and the artist's style and ability are important. The sympathetic portrait of Dr. Gachet by Van Gogh suggests a strong spiritual kinship between artist and sitter. The restless line in this, his only etching, moves us to feel something of the unrest and agitation within the artist.

The Watkins Portrait of Thomas Raeburn White represents the subject reading a newspaper. It portrays him in a casual relaxed home atmosphere. But Watkins did not overlook the subject's mental alertness and concentration. The grip of the hands is in harmony with the set gesture of the head, and we are made to feel the inner tension of the man holding the newspaper. There is a wonderful balance of diagonal and horizontal movement in its design. Though the painting is muted in color and tone, our perception of its colorfulness increases as we look at it, and a soft vibrancy is set in motion which makes the man seem to breathe.

The painting by Eugene Speicher, Marianna, represents the classic tendency in portraiture. While it has some of the attributes of realistic portrayal, it nevertheless weighs heavily in favor of formal organization and tasteful qualities of color and tone. The parts of the body are geometrically constructed in relation to the whole and the space in which it exists. A feeling of reserve permeates the canvas and we view the subject with detachment.

In addition to the types of portraiture already mentioned there are three other definite types. We might call the Portrait of Albert Pinkham Ryder by Hartley a commemorative portrait since it was done some twenty years after Ryder's death. In this portrait, an apparitional presence looms in a timeless space evoking an indescribable feeling of aloneness. The Maurer Portrait of a Girl with Green Background illustrates the use of the head as a vehicle for the expression of psychological ideas with which this artist was obsessed in his late work. Another type is the informal group portrait by Sloan, Yeats at Petitpas, representing a gathering including the artist himself. It is a delightful painting in a spirit recalling similar group portraits by the Impressionists.

One of the reasons for this exhibition is to stimulate the practice of portraiture and also to call attention to the compatibility of portraiture in paintings and prints with the recent developments in photography. To a great extent, the various modern movements and mainly abstract art have distracted our attention from the portraiture which has been going on all the time. These developments have served and will continue to serve in enriching and nourishing a supply of new ideas as exemplified by some of the creative accomplishments in 20th-century portraiture which are included in the exhibition: De Chirico's Self-Portrait, Rouault's Portrait of Mr. X, the Portrait of Vollard by Picasso, Watkins' Portrait of Thomas Raeburn White, Max Ernst by Arnold Newman, Georgia O'Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz. These examples hold their own in the portrait tradition at its best.

Some of the more extreme portraits such as Rouault's Mr. X, the Kirchner Portrait of Guthmann and the Maurer Portrait of a Girl with Green Background may be difficult for some of us to accept, and the Portrait of W.J.H.B. Sandberg by Appel and De Kooning's Marilyn Monroe may even shock our sensibilities because they do not depict the subjects in an accustomed way. But these portraits painted in the modern idiom do emphasize the individual and reveal aspects of personality and character.

In this connection, the False Portraits by Saul Steinberg suggest a relevant idea. We are conditioned to see a subject or nature according to the pictorial terms with which we are familiar -- that is to say, we see with our mind's eye. These whimsical False Portraits remind us of hundreds of photographs we have seen. They also bring to mind qualities which we find in the works of such painters as Sargent and Whistler. Of course they are not photographs but drawings. Begun from mere spots they were developed and ordered to represent people, and stylistically they combine features of photography and painting. These features merge in such a way that they result in familiar and convincing representations of individuals because we have been conditioned to see them as such. As Mr. Steinberg says, "They can be called portraits only by our contemporary prejudiced eye."

Perhaps we are already being conditioned to such paintings as that of Appel and De Kooning. The expressionism of De Kooning's Marilyn Monroe shows an interest in the delightful quality afforded by the vigorous handling of color, paint textures, and visually exciting paths of movement. In such works, the use of large and often intense color areas, bold lines and unusual shapes, incongruous juxtapositions of the parts of the body automatically painted in the momentum of muscular action, emphasize the subjective expression rather than the objective representation. In time, we may come to see such paintings as familiarly as the False Portraits.

However, portraiture is essentially the same today as it ever was. It answers the need and desire to make a permanent physical record of an individual. The reasons for a portrait's being are as varied and complex as the motives of a sitter desiring to be portrayed and the interest of the artist in interpreting these motives in an art form. New concepts, materials, and techniques are introduced which add variety and richness to the artist's repertoire. It is chiefly in emphasis and combination of the picture elements that portraiture differs from one era to another. Perhaps one may wonder whether artists have exhausted the pictorial possibilities of a face. Unquestionably the face presents a challenge which will undoubtedly be met by those who seek it out. A good portrait results when the artist is given rein to express the subject in his own way. The sitter who recognizes this profits as well as the artist. In most instances compromise to a sitter's wishes spells death to any liveliness a portrait may possess. It usually results in frustration for the artist and in dissatisfaction for the sitter. It is the very reason why so many creative artists shy away from portrait commissions.

We must put our faith in the artist as we would in a guide to lead us into unexplored territories. Artistic freedom is a necessary condition for creativity enabling the artist to give the best that is in him as he combines his skill and feelings to produce a fine work.


About the author

Joseph S. Trovato was born in Guardavalle (Catanzaro, Italy) in 1912. He arrived in Utica, New York in 1920. During the Depression, Trovato taught classes and worked on The Murals Project with the Works Progress Administration. During the years 1939-1983 he served as assistant to the director of Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute of Utica, New York. Although his career was devoted to teaching and art administration, Trovato also produced a body of notable works which are in private and museum collections. He was awarded the Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree by Hamilton College.

Trovato was Assistant to the Director at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute at the time of the printing of the catalogue Portraiture: The 19th and 20th Centuries.


Resource Library editor's note

The above exhibition catalog text was reprinted in Resource Library on June 1, 2009, with permission of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute of Utica, New York. The permission was granted to TFAO on April 10, 2009. Mr. Trovato's essay pertains to Portraiture: The 19th and 20th Centuries, a catalog of an exhibition arranged by the institute and published in 1957.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Maggie Mazzullo of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute and Stacey Wittig for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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