Portraiture as Art

On July 3, 2006 I went to the National Portrait Gallery with Erik. They were celebrating a re-opening after a long renovation and it was the opening of the big portrait competition, which I entered this year. I did a portrait of Asha in only two weeks. It was very intense. I even made a waste mold and cast it myself. I did a complicated patina that involved melting crayons in my oven. I have mixed feelings about the piece. Some days, I love it. Other days, I think it’s completely prosaic and ordinarily I shy away from sculptures with toothy grins. Yet, I just could not do a sculpture of Little Miss Giggle Fest without her toothy grin.  In fact, my first iteration of the sculpture, she was serene and closed-mouthed. No one recognized it as Asha. So, I took a few risks. The biggest risk was entering it into the competition. We find out on April 15th.

I have to admit, I love doing portraits. I love faces, expressions, seeing the face as the fallen, broken, beautiful imago dei. Yet, I do struggle taking myself seriously as an artist and a portraitist. Portraiture has been sort of a lesser form of art in the art world. Or perhaps I’m imagining it. Perhaps I ought to stop thinking about the art world all together. The art world is large enough to encompass me, too.

The day after the visit to the National Portrait Gallery, we went to the National Gallery of Art to take in the Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting exhibition. I wrote this in my blog:

I have never taken such a close observation of Titian’s work before. I felt really encouraged, as if the hand of Titian himself had reached out and patted me on the shoulder. “You are on the right track, Sarah.” I have four mostly-finished heads and one face in my studio right now. They are portraits insofar as I used a model, but they aren’t reallyportraits. I am not sure how to explain them, but I understood when I saw Titian’s portraits, which aren’t really portraits either. “So we must be care to understand that the woman on the couch [in Titian’s Venus and Music] is not a real woman…Titian makes it clear that she is of a different kind, living in a different realm (Rookmaaker 28).” Or could I perhaps be creating characters, as a novelist does? Sometimes the characters are more real and more true that the real people they were modeled after.

Other portraits have stuck me as well. When we were in St. Thomas, we stopped into Charlotte Amalie for one of the days to take in the city. One of the places that remains with me is a tiny gallery I popped into after lunch, Gallery St. Thomas. It had the usual island paintings, waves and beautiful sunsets, but it also had these amazing portraits hanging behind the counter. The women in the paintings gazed back at me, their emotions so raw, so real, so palpable.

(untitled) Misuzu 4
William Stoehr
Original Acrylic on Canvas
48 X 36

The gallery owner showed me a book that the artist had compiled. I nearly dove into it, pushing her out of the way. I had to apologize for my over-enthusiasm. She told me that many people have a very strong reaction to the paintings. He captures the soul of the sitter, and perhaps a bit of the artists, in the eyes. The rest of the paintings are painted with energetic brushstrokes, lines of chalk, and hints of red.

(untitled) Loni 1
William Stoehr
Original Acrylic on Canvas
48 X 36

Frankly, I cannot stop thinking about these imagines, these women. Thank you, William Stoehr, for giving the world these paintings.


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