Face Value

The National Gallery traveling show A Brush With History, which opens this week at NOMA, provides 75 answers to the question: Why do we love portraits?



For the legendary New Orleans artist and sculptor Enrique Alfarez, getting a call one day in the mid-l930s from Huey P. Long was anything but good news.

The reason was simple: Alfarez, a gentle, refined man, loathed the Kingfish. "He was a loud, crude, inconsiderate and terrible person," Alfarez said many years later, during a l989 interview with historian and physician John Salvaggio.

And as a model for a painting or drawing, Long could only be an artist's nightmare, moving and fidgeting about, "scratching himself all over," as Alfarez remembered it.

"He would scratch his privates and then reach around and start scratching his rear end," Alfarez added. "It didn't seem to make any difference to him if anyone was watching. Long made no bones about it."

That Alfarez endured the commission of a man he so richly detested was testament to a condition painfully familiar to most aspiring young artists. He was broke -- after all, this was before Alfarez snared a city contract to create a series of statues and fountains in City Park, and before his modernistic friezes would decorate countless buildings and edifices across the city.

What is more remarkable is that Long, who publicly eschewed both the wealthy and their trappings, was so eager to pose for Alfarez and see his cherubic countenance preserved on canvas for history.

"To have your portrait painted and then, even better, to see it displayed in a public space, is one of the greatest honors that a person can receive in their lifetime," says Douglas Brinkley, director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans. "Perhaps the only thing greater would be to have your face appear on U.S. currency."

Which may partially explain why not only tugboat captains and university presidents pose for their portrait, but so do boxers, Mafia kings and rap stars. In Louisiana, both Huey and Earl Long have been reproduced on canvas, as have Jefferson Davis, Edwin Edwards, Louis Armstrong, Tennessee Williams, Louis Prima, Truman Capote, David Duke and, through the years, several dozen New Orleans Saints.

At Tulane University, in an eerie reproduction of the late Congressman F. Edward Hebert's Washington office, hangs a gold-framed likeness of Hebert himself. And at Gallier Hall, the oil portraits of the city's past mayors -- including recently retired Mayor Marc Morial, whose portrait was unveiled last month -- decorate that building's stately chamber.

"There is a certain gravitas that comes with an oil painting that you don't really get from any other form of expression, including photography," says Frederick S. Voss, senior historian with the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. "There is also a fascination among viewers who like to study the free-hand reaction of an artist to another human being. The relationship between an artist and his subject is always a complex one, and it's one that we, as the viewers, always have a part in."

Just how that relationship works, or in some cases doesn't, is the subject of a new exhibition scheduled for unveiling at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) this week. Opening Friday, May 31, A Brush With History: Paintings From the National Portrait Gallery is part of a cross-country road show that seeks to reveal the wonders of the Washington institution that was established more than three decades ago specifically to collect and preserve not only the faces of a nation captured on canvas, but the works of the artists who drew them.

Marc Pachter, director of the National Portrait Gallery, describes the show as a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring these paintings to a broader public." Included in the NOMA exhibition is more than the familiar, evocative portraits of a nation's youth. Ben Franklin, Davy Crockett, Dolly Madison and Harriet Beecher Stowe are all here, but so are the icons who helped define American culture as it reached modernity: John Updike, Michael Jackson, Lena Horne and Carl Sandburg.

As art, the works are uneven, with some representative of styles and techniques now out of fashion or even debunked. And even as culture, the paintings have their limitations, confined in subject matter as they were through most of the nation's early decades to imposing white men, such as Sen. John C. Calhoun, Gen. Winfield Scott and author Gulian Verplanck -- men whose stony visages seem to speak of will and power in a frontier culture that rewarded conquest.

"It's true, in most cases, you had to be a powerful person or have money -- and even a certain amount of time -- to have your portrait done," admits Brinkley, who as a graduate student at Georgetown University served as a guide for the famous Phillips Collection at the National Portrait Gallery. "And if you go into one of the great homes of New Orleans, it is almost certain you will find an ancestor's portrait there, passed down through the generations like an heirloom."

"I think that [portraits represent] the kind of world that today many people feel they are missing or somehow want to be a part of," says Charles Cage, vice-president with the French Quarter gallery Dixon & Harris of Royal, "and that's why oil paintings from the l8th and l9th century are more popular today than ever before."

Indeed, such paintings are so popular -- at Dixon & Harris they range in price from $8,000 to $80,000 -- that many younger and first- time homebuyers want them even if they're not quite sure who the person in that grand-looking old oil really is.

"That's one of the most amazing things about the market today," says Cage. "I try very hard to research all of the portraits we acquire, the various lords and majors and such. But sometimes that proves impossible." Yet even an anonymous figure or countenance from an imagined rich and aristocratic past is better than no image at all. Cage thinks that's because portrait paintings of the past conjure up "a feeling or an era that is removed from us today.

"If that's the kind of feeling you want for your house, you're going to buy that painting whether you know the person in the painting or not," he adds.

Increased evidence of portrait painting's peculiar durability is found with the new commissions that daily come in from everyone from dancers to bankers -- especially among Generation X entrepreneurs -- who want to see themselves on canvas. In New York, Portraits Incorporated charges anywhere from $3,000 to $175,000 for a commissioned work, with a stable of artists that produces up to 300 new portraits a year.

Portrait artists across the country, meanwhile, are enjoying brisk turnovers, even in a stressed economy. "I am amazed by how strong our market remains," says Gordon Wetmore, chairman of the Portrait Society of America. "But what really amazes me is that we remain so competitive given the alternatives. After all, this is the age of photography, high technology, digital imaging. And here are all of these artists painting portraits for a living much as they did 200 or even 500 years ago."

The portrait market isn't for everyone. Some artists, despairing of the oftentimes exacting conditions required by their clients, leave the portrait business as soon as they can figure out a way to make money elsewhere.

"Painting a portrait can take up to three or four times more than painting something topical," says Csabus Markus, a southern California artist whose individual works can fetch $80,000 or more. "You have to talk to the client and get to know them. They come up to your studio and you take pictures of them, and it all gets very emotional, working with the very real possibility that person who is paying you is not going to like at all what they are paying for."

Adds Markus: "After all, most people are not even satisfied with the photos on their driver's license. Imagine how they feel about something they are paying $30,000 for."

Wetmore, who lives in Chattanooga and has been a successful portrait painter for more than three decades, admits that the pressure to stroke a client's ego -- while somehow also maintaining a semblance of artistic integrity -- is powerful. He recalls that one of his first commissions came from a woman he charitably describes as a "wealthy dowager who was once beautiful." The woman candidly told Wetmore: "I know what I look like and I don't want that hanging from my wall."

The resulting work, Wetmore now laughs, was "pretty heavy on the flattery side," an image that the young painter says he received no end of kidding about from fellow artists.

But from that early experience, Wetmore became determined to "work within the range" of flattery and likeness. "Who among us does not want to look our best?" Wetmore asks. "This is not a bad trait. But the artist has to do more than just make people look attractive, you have to try and capture that that is honest about them, their personality and maybe even spirit."

Perhaps the most famous case of a dissatisfied customer took place in January of l967, when artist Peter Hurd presented to Lyndon B. Johnson his official presidential portrait. LBJ took one glance at the work -- which portrayed him from the waist up with the Capitol dome serving as background -- and judged it "the ugliest thing I ever saw." As the president -- in classic Johnson style -- began to pick the painting to pieces, Hurd listened in what he later called "icy politeness." Finally Hurd asked: "What do you like?" Johnson responded, "I'll show you what I like." He then stalked over to his desk and pulled out a print portrait of him that had been done by Norman Rockwell during the l964 presidential election.

"That story -- and it's all true -- is one of the best pieces of presidential lore ever," says Voss, who has written extensively about presidential portrait art. "And the funny thing of it was that until that moment, no one had ever heard Johnson talk about art before."

A happier ending came with the official portrait of Andrew Jackson done in the early l830s. The country's first true populist president, Jackson enjoyed a huge following among a mostly rural and often illiterate population who did not, even after he won the White House, know what he looked like.

Jackson assigned artist Ralph E.W. Earl to do his official portrait, even though Earl was not generally recognized as a great or even important artist. Earl, perhaps overwhelmed by the presidential commission, was entirely devoted to Jackson, even to the point of moving into the White House so he could be daily closer to his subject.

The result, says Voss, was a work "mostly done in the folk tradition and seen by many, even then, as a simple and awkward rendering of Jackson." Yet the painting also brought with it an honesty that seemed to complement Jackson, who was well-known for his blunt words and candid remarks. "As time goes by, Earl's painting just seems more and more emblematic of a distinct moment in our culture, a slice of the rural America from which Jackson sprung," Voss says.

The paintings displayed in the exhibition at NOMA are only a slice of the far larger permanent National Portrait Gallery collection. The official presidential portraits are not included, because a separate exhibition sponsored by the Gallery titled Hall of the Presidents is already on the road. Other works, such as a famous image of Pocahontas painted by an unknown English artist, were thought to be too delicate to move from museum to museum.

The gallery's curators also culled the collection, reducing the preponderance of white male portraits in favor of a collection that seems more demographically representative. In a companion book jointly released by the National Gallery titled , curators Carolyn Kinder Cart and Ellen G. Miles explain that after a portrait's aesthetic importance was evaluated, "our choices were then shaped by issues of chronology, occupation, gender and ethnicity."

In real terms, that means that sandwiched in the chronology between Henry Clay and the segregationist John C. Calhoun is the African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, in a sober l844 portrait done by an unknown artist. Similarly incongruous are portraits of the author Edith Wharton, artist Mary Cassatt, and Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts of America (who looks not a day over 16 herself in an l887 portrait by artist Edward Hughes). The trio breaks up a gray chorus line of heavy-set elderly white men with mustaches and beards who define the classic portrait paintings of the late l800s and early l900s.

Twentieth century portraiture -- like 20th century society -- is more diverse, and the NOMA exhibition includes paintings of the poet Marianne Moore, actress Tallulah Bankhead, and a stunning l980 self-portrait by artist Alice Neel, who makes a bold strike at convention by showing herself, when she was in her early 70s, naked. "I liked to put the flesh dropping off my bones," Neel explained of a portrait that is nothing less than honest.

In Neel's portrait can be found both a revelation of self and our changing society. "I think, in the end, what really makes an exhibition like this important is that the faces in the National Portrait Gallery are the faces of America," says Brinkley. "And those portraits tell a story of who we once were and how we've grown as a country."

George S. Patton, Jr. by Boleslaw Czedekowski, 1945
  • George S. Patton, Jr. by Boleslaw Czedekowski, 1945
Lena Horne by Edward Biberman, 1947
  • Lena Horne by Edward Biberman, 1947
Mary Cassatt by Edgar Degas, c. 1880-1884
  • Mary Cassatt by Edgar Degas, c. 1880-1884
Lee Simonson self-portrait, 1912
  • Lee Simonson self-portrait, 1912
George Gershwin by Arthur Kaufmann, 1936
  • George Gershwin by Arthur Kaufmann, 1936
Samuel Langhorne Clemens by John White Alexander, 1902
  • Samuel Langhorne Clemens by John White Alexander, 1902

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