Throughout art history, some of the most memorable images have been those inhabited with faces. From the searching gaze of Rembrandt's sitters and the regal female portraits of John Singer Sargent, to the tormented self-portraits of Van Gogh and the Pop art portraits of Alex Katz, portraits have the ability to hypnotize viewers, leaving an imprint on the inner psyche. Whether young or old, beautiful or plain, the human face has served artists as a constant source of inspiration, and sometimes obsession, for centuries.
Perhaps this is why the dismissal of figurative art during the 1960s and '70s by the art community wasn't meant to last. No longer are figurative works, of which portraits make up a substantial part, thrown into burning dumpsters and hidden away under lock and key. The abstract and conceptual art movements, while not dead, have reluctantly made room for good `ole representational art. And with the return of representational art has come the revival of portraiture, which, according to gallery owners and the artists themselves, is thriving and strong.
"Portraits have become a hot subject in the fine art field during the last three or four years," observed Robert Fishko of the Forum Gallery in New York, which represents 33 artists--29 of whom do portraits. "There have been many exhibitions of portraits both at commercial galleries and museums. It seems to be something people are very interested in at the moment."
In fact, one look at the roster of current museum and gallery exhibits across the country and it becomes clear that portraits are indeed turning heads. Currently on view at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, for example, is "Eye Contact: Modern American Portrait Drawings from the National Portrait Gallery." The exhibit includes 50 works on paper by artists such as Mary Cassatt, Edward Hopper, Jacob Lawrence and Andy Warhol. Another exhibit, "A Brush with History: Paintings from the National Portrait Gallery," is on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Both of these exhibits, along with two other portrait shows, are touring the country while the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., undergoes a major $200 million renovation. When it reopens in two years, the Gallery will reclaim its place as one of the most visited institutions in the nation's capitol, which can only mean good things for the portrait genre.
A Thriving Market
The renewed interest in portraiture, according to Shelley Stansfield, a founding member of the New York Society of Portrait Artists, began in the mid-1980s alongside the resurgence of representational art in general. "That whole genre of painting got hit pretty hard during the 1960s and '70s," she said. "Portraiture got pushed aside because it's not exploitive, shocking or sensational. Today though the market is very strong."
"People didn't know where to go to get portraits a few years back," added Michael Curtis, owner of the Classical Gallery in Alexandria, Va., which represents the work of seven portrait painters, including Robert Liberace and Michael Aviano. "Modernism had this kind of deathgrip on style in the country. During the past decade, however, there has been a resurgence of Classicism and traditional styles. During the last four years, I can't remember holding an exhibit that didn't have portraits in it."
Indeed, a return to a more classical sensibility is a major reason why the market for portraiture is booming. "The market for figurative and representational work has grown dramatically over the last five years, and portraits are an intrinsic part of the genre," commented Frann Bradford of the Eleanor Ettinger Gallery in New York, which specializes in representational art and classical figurative art. The gallery represents the work of artists like Dan Thompson, winner of the Grand Prize at the 2001 Portrait Arts Festival held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and sponsored by the American Society of Portrait Artists.
According to Ann Fader, president of Portrait Consultants Inc., in White Plains, N.Y., a company that matches patrons with portrait artists, the demand for portraiture has become even stronger since the events of Sept. 11. "The market has always been steadily growing, but particularly since Sept. 11, people have a greater appreciation for life and for paying tribute to other people's accomplishments."
Stansfield agreed. "I think the reflection on the importance of individuals in our culture and history has been exemplified since Sept. 11. After the attacks, it was all about people--specific people. It's difficult to say that the renewed interest began after the attack, but it was certainly exacerbated by it," she said. "People are focusing more on family and home now."
An Appealing Face
Today's art collecting public is responding and embracing portraiture for many reasons. Perhaps they recognize the artist's ability to capture the multi-layered essence of a person in one place, or they appreciate the technical virtuosity required to make a good portrait.
"Portraits have a universality that crosses cultural boundaries. A successful portrait shows the experience of life, and I think it is more about interpretation than about strict representation," said Bradford when explaining the lasting appeal of portraits. "One can see from the prehistoric cave drawings that there has always been a need to visually record ourselves, and I think this need will always exist."
Jane Campion of London Contemporary Art, which carries the work of artists like Felix Mas, agreed. "People respond well to figures in art--it is a subject one can identify with, and it transcends many barriers," she said.
For Cheryl Perkey, the artist representative for Eva and Americo Makk, a portrait is not just a painting--it is an heirloom. "Even if a client's home is full to the brim with paintings and sculpture, they will always find room for their family portrait," she said.
Part of the reason artist Dan Thompson is drawn to portraiture is to change the perception of what a portrait is. "I want to make people understand that the person doesn't have to be in a business suit for it to be a portrait of somebody. [The subject] can be in any clothing or any position, as long as they embody something," he said.
Contemporary portrait artists work in a variety of media--from oils and acrylics to charcoal, graphite and pastels. According to Curtis, the best portrait painters share the ability to capture the essence of the person. "Portraits are not meant to be mere reproductions. Instead, they should capture something of the soul of the sitter, and that is what separates a good portrait from a bad one," he said.
"There has to be a basis of draftsmanship first, so that one feels the artist understands the human body and has the technical skills to execute it," he continued. "What they choose to leave out is by choice, not by lack of skill."
Some of the foremost portrait painters working today include Nelson Shanks, John Howard Sanden, Steve Childs, Raymond Kinstler, Margaret Sargent, Dan Thompson, Rick Wheaver, Robert Liberace and Jon De Martin.
While an easel artist paints something for himself or herself, a commissioned artist's goal is not only to serve themselves artistically, but to provide a service. As Fader explained, "A commissioned portrait artist's creativity falls within certain parameters of portraiture ... when Solomon Guggeinheim was asked why he chose a professional portrait artist to render his portrait instead of choosing Kandinsky or Picasso, he said because he didn't want his likeness to be `interpreted.'"
While some believe commissioned portraits lead to too much compromise, there are others who believe one can strike a balance. Said Thompson, "There is a lot of cookie-cutter portraiture out there, where one is expected to produce a certain aesthetic. But the people who commission me have a similar view--they know I'm not going to paint them in a traditional way. I still put my artistic expression into the portrait."
Fishko believes the most successful portrait painters, like Shanks, are able to maintain their artistic integrity "by doing commissioned portraits in an imaginative, individually stylistic way that genuinely communicates the character and strength of the sitter. Far from being a compromise, a commissioned portrait can become an expressive medium of its own," he said.
Expressive and lucrative. "It's bread and butter for us," said Curtis. "Prices can go up to more than $120,000 for a single portrait painting."
Makk portraits, for example, start at $18,000 for a small portrait of a face and go up to $150,000 for a large, full length, life-sized portrait. "These are quite popular," said Perkey.
Indeed, there is little doubt that commissioned portraits offer a specialized opportunity for galleries, art dealers and artists to reach more clients. Even art superstar Francesco Clemente, who is represented by the Gagosian Gallery, is now offering his portrait talents to the general public for a price tag of $100,000.
Usually, the most expensive commissions belong to institutional portraits, which, according to Fader, represent the majority of commissions. "There has always been a strong market for government, corporate and academic portraits," she said. "Heads of state, popes, c.e.o.s and university deans are the usual clients."
Nelson Shanks, for example, has created portraits for the late Princess Diana, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Luciano Pavarotti and J. Carter Brown, while Americo Makk has created portraits of President Reagan and President Carter, as well as corporate and religious leaders.
The Classical Gallery, which is based in Washington, D.C., receives many commissions for official government portraits. Curtis, an artist himself, is currently creating a sculptural portrait of George Washington for the National Portrait Gallery. "I think one of the reasons we do so well is because we are located in the capitol," he said.
Personal portraits for the home, especially of children, are also in demand. Explained Perkey, "Many people commission a portrait because it is a very personal heirloom for the family. I recall a client telling me how she wished she had a portrait of her mother when her mother was young. So she commissioned a portrait of her daughter, which they would cherish during their lifetimes and future grandchildren could enjoy."
The three-quarter length pose is a popular choice, because it offers the "gesturing of the subject which is so important to capture the essence and personality of the sitter," noted Fader, who added that clients usually prefer the Naturalist style in the manner of the Renaissance painters. "People want realistic skin tones, which is a very particular process of painting called underglazing. They want the beautiful luminous surface quality," said Fader. The Continental style of John Singer Sargent is also popular among wealthy patrons.
While a large number of portrait artists work from life, there are some who work from photographs, and, as Curtis noted, this market is strong--particularly among the middle class. "You see these realistic portraits very often, but they are looked down upon because they tend to look like photographs. From a marketing point of view, however, you want an artist like this, because they do sell and there is a market for them ... We have people come to us weekly to get commemorative portraits or heirlooms done."
Non-commissioned portraits, or easel portraits, appeal to a broad public as well. Shown primarily in galleries, they offer the artist more freedom to experiment. Said Fishko, "A collector doesn't have to know who the person in the painting is in order to buy the work. I think people like the mystery and the feeling that is evoked through the person's expression." The easel portraits at Forum range in price from $5,000 to more than $200,000.
"Anyone can appreciate the quality and composition, and they don't have to know who the person is," agreed Stansfield.
Curtis has found such success selling easel portraits in his gallery that last year he launched Classical Editions to offer prints of the originals. Arcadia Fine Arts of New York has also found success selling both originals and lithographs of several artists who create portraits, including Ken Hamilton and Priscilla Treacy. And at London Contemporary Art, about 75 percent of the work shown is classified as "figurative," and from that Campion estimates about 30 percent are easel portraits. "These works sell very well for us," she said.
While the preferred style for commissioned portraits is Naturalism, easel portraits are more open to other kinds of artistic styles. Fishko, for example, recently held a show on contemporary Austrian painter Xenia Hausner. "Her work was overwhelmingly successful in her last exhibition, and they were mostly Expressionist portraits," he said.
While portraiture faces many other avenues of competition--from photography to video to digital images--many believe portraiture will remain a strong choice in both the commissioned and easel categories. "I think portraiture will always be with us, because people throughout time will always relate to expressions of personality and humanity," said Perkey.
Curtis has high hopes for the future of portraiture, citing the growing number of organizations being formed to further increase exposure. He also hopes to form a school that will promote traditional techniques.
Curtis also believes now is a good time to invest in portraits. "We tell people not to buy art as an investment, but you would be foolish not to," he said. "Before this year, most of our sales were to galleries. These galleries were not reselling but buying to hold. Some have made excellent collections, having bought them at a relatively low price. Now, many are selling them for a profit."
Curtis added that there is probably room in the marketplace for a handful of other galleries like his. "It is far from saturated," he noted.
* American Society of Portrait Artists, 800-62-ASOPA
* Arcadia Fine Arts, (212) 965-1387
* Cheryl Perkey Fine Art, (310) 204-2787
* Classical Gallery, (703) 836-7736
* Eleanor Ettinger Gallery, (212) 925-7474
* Forum Gallery, (212) 355-4545
* London Contemporary Art, 800-366-2788
* New York Society of Portrait Artists, (212) 459-1332
* Portrait Consultants Inc., (914) 428-3883…