PORTRAITS AS INTUITIVE HISTORY

an essay by louis briel

 

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Some years ago I was commissioned by a friend to do a posthumous portrait of his twelve year old son who had been killed in a plane crash. I had known the boy to be a wonderful youngster - bright, happy and well adjusted. His father, of course, was enormously distraught at losing him and came to me only after some time had passed, but still was unable to look at photographs. He wanted me to do the painting alone. I knew in my heart that I could not paint this portrait without help from my friend, and so I insisted that we not start until he was willing to work with me. He finally agreed, and we began going through photographs and sharing reminiscences,crying and laughing together. Gradually over time, a painting of the young boy began to emerge. The sharing we had done provided a suitable outlet for my feelings of sadness, and served as timely therapy for my friend. What helped me most was seeing how wonderful his experience of his son had been. The painting became a joyous, happy tribute to a father's love.

Clients seldom think about portraits as painted histories of relationships. In fact, more often than not, the painter is being paid merely to create a replica of his subject. Kenneth McConkey writes, "Portraits supplant the individuals whom they represent. They function as analogues, existing in parallel to their subjects.... At a certain juncture, the artist and sitter collude in the production of an image which, to some extent, becomes a substitute for a living being. It is taken from the sitter and cannot be reclaimed. It becomes the possession of others for whom it acts as a cue to imaginative consciousness... the spectator partakes of an illusion...living yet distanced from normal experience."

During the mid 1980's I was commissioned to paint a college professor whom I had known for a long time. He had died of cancer, and the portrait was to honor his academic accomplishment. I already knew what I wanted the painting to look like because I knew the subject so well. As I worked, the painted image would look at me, just as the subject had so many times, and say, " Get to work, just do it, Louis." In time I created a forceful and dynamic presence on canvas, so intuitively right, it's almost spooky. I had painted in everything I knew about my friend, and I was confident he would have liked the final result. The professor's wife later told me of her daily visits to the building where the portrait was hanging, to meditate, to talk to it, to "get centered." "Your painting", she said, "got me through that year."

Sometimes what the client wants from the painter is greater kindness than time itself has provided. "Promise you won't make me look like an old lady," was a recent request from a client. The artist can often agree to the sitter's wishes for cosmetic enhancement, because even this request - spoken or implied - becomes part of the relationship. There's a difference, however, in being asked to do the equivalent of a "chin-tuck" and being asked to take off fifty pounds or twenty years. Still, all of that - and more - happens in commissioned portraiture, becoming part of the historical and intuitive relationship between the painter and client. Whenever the artist's experience of the sitter is radically different from the portrait desired, one of several things will happen. Perhaps the painter will do as he sees fit and risk rejection of the painting, or perhaps he'll sneak in some editorial comment, hoping it will not cause a stir. Maybe a gentle accommodation will be made midway. In general, however, the portrait can be viewed as biography. In most cases it can be kind. All of us want to be seen at our best, and it is part of the painter's job to find out what that looks like. If the painter's intentions are kind, he never need feel guilty when more information appears than he intended. It had to be.

     
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