The portraits in this exhibition depict figures in the literary, performing, and visual arts. Created by a broad range of twentieth-century artists, the presentation complements the Yousuf Karsh photographs on view in the adjacent gallery. This assembly, grouped to reveal both thematic and formal relationships, reveals how twentieth-century artists, including Karsh, have embraced timeless conventions of portraiture while also expanding its parameters.
Artists began painting likenesses of individual faces—versus generic types—as early as the second century CE. (Three early examples are on view in the Museum’s Egyptian gallery.) But it was during the European Renaissance that the portrait became a vital part of visual culture. Early Netherlandish portraits, such as the Portrait of a Cleric (ca. 1490) in the Museum’s Renaissance gallery, depict the sitter’s head, shoulders, and hands against a simple backdrop. Such strikingly naturalistic, intimate portraits were paired with devotional scenes or portrayed their sitters at prayer. As individuals became increasingly invested in status within a more visible public sphere, artists created larger portraits—often depicting the subject seated, standing, or at three-quarter length—that included attributes meant to define the sitter’s standing or character. Lady of the Hampden Family (ca. 1610) in the Main Gallery, for example, depicts an elegantly clad young noblewoman standing before a garden, a symbol of her virtue. The newly wealthy professional class also sought visibility through portraiture. Pompeo Batoni’s Portrait of Thomas Estcourt, Esquire (1772) in the Museum’s Stairwell gallery shows a seated gentleman surrounded by symbols of his learning (books, a portrait bust) and leisure (a hunting dog).
Printed, drawn, and, later, photographed portraits soon became as prevalent as painted representations and were available to a wider audience. Beginning in the late Renaissance period, engravers made series of portraits of notable personages that were widely circulated and collected. Included in these series were pictures of artists, which played an important role in the creation of the artistic canon. The invention of photography in 1839 made the portrait a wholly democratic art, contributing to the appetite for celebrity portraiture that grows to this day.
Perhaps what distinguishes twentieth-century portraiture is the diversity found within the genre: the style and aim of each portrait is as individual as the artist who made it. Rarely a mere physical description, each offers a view into the personality, mood, reputation, or work of both subject and artist. (Sometimes the two are one and the same, as many of the images seen here are self-portraits.) The revelation of complex relationships between the sitter and the artist—two creative individuals working in collaboration—may offer the ultimate fascination of this selection.