Portrait of a Distinguished Gentleman

He’s sitting leaning a bit forward in his chair—with his upright posture it could even be a stool. Though out of view, his hands are resting comfortably, naturally at his side, not fidgeting. The pose is classic three-quarter view, the head turned towards the observer. He wears a dark grey striped suit coat, red-patterned tie over a crisp white shirt, a small lapel pin the only piece of jewelry. A full head of graying, nearly silver hair, warm flesh tones, a slight smile. The umber background appears to lighten around his face, darkens towards the bottom of the painting. The size of the painting, and the intricate gold frame, indicate that this is a corporate portrait, too large to hang over the mantle in one’s home but not out of place in a lobby or a corporate boardroom. He is a Distinguished Gentlemen whatever  his occupation might have been. 

What is it about us that we will memorialize our presence in this manner, capturing our idealized selves for posterity with oil on linen canvas, known and yet unknown? I bought this painting at an estate auction, the artist and the sitter both strangers to me. I don’t know them but I know a bit of their history and they both take their place in a very long line of artists and portraits made of distinguished gentlemen.

Have you been to a wedding or perhaps been in that lineup of groom and his best man and groomsmen? “Where do we stand? Where do we look?” And most importantly, “What do I do with my hands?” Some portraits handle the problem of hands by not painting them in, giving us only a portion of the subject. Perhaps the easiest solution is that of Rembrandt’s: tuck the hand under your coat. I like Franz Hals’ clever solution: his subject holds onto a book (which he has written) and the composition forces us to consider the book as nearly an important element as the subject’s own face.

One would expect the face to be the center of attention in a portrait (portrait: a likeness of a person, especially of the face, as a painting, drawing, or photograph. from the Latin “portrahere,” translated as “to drag out, reveal, expose.”) Yet in several of these historical examples, the hands or even the costume appear to be the center of attention. Perhaps the purpose here is to reveal or expose the character and nature of the subject even more so than could the face. Titian’s “Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap” ca 1510, overwhelms us with his beautiful ermine collar. Likewise the voluminous red robe and white wig of Largilliere’s “Portrait of a Gentleman” nearly obscures the smiling face of the sitter, though viewed up close, the rosy complexion and red lips reinforce the color palette and sense of privilege. The portrait of Juan de Pareja by the Spanish painter Velasques from 1650 was shocking at the time for the identity of the individual portrayed. I wonder if perhaps the white delicate collar, contrasting with that beard and full head of hair, was also a bit of a shock? All of the portraits shown here include some type of shirt or collar of white separating the flesh tones from the darker clothing.

My favorite of the lot is also the most recent. Jamie Wyeth’s painting of Andy Warhol and his daschund Archie, from 1976 places the subject squarely in front of us. Shocking white wig, white face, white shirt collar, and an exposed arm with hands holding Archie who also stares right at us. Quite a portrait indeed.

When I took art history in college, and later saw great art in person, I was always struck by the discrepancy of size. Paintings reproduced in books or viewed as film slides projected in a classroom gave no indication of their incredible power when later viewed up close in a gallery. Many of them were quite large, far larger than the 8”x10” framed photographs of family that many of us have in our homes. Even those seem to have shrunk down a bit as they have been replaced by images viewed online or in a digital frame.

As an artist I’ve never done a portrait, not even a self portrait. I had any number of life drawing classes in art school but the subject matter never really captured my attention. Perhaps at the time, if I had seen one of Chuck Close’s paintings up close, and really discovered his use of texture, then I might have attempted the challenging genre. The best of portraiture reveals more than surface texture, paint colors swirled across stretched canvas. It can reveal the subject, a psychological study perhaps, but great paintings also reveal the artist. I don’t know which takes precedence, we do after all want our portraits to at least resemble the sitter; but we lean in even closer when we feel we are reading the mind of the artist, following his thoughts.

Portrait of Ron, smiling with arms crossed

From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him. Isaiah 64:4 ESV

Portrait of a Distinguished Gentleman, by Stephen Craighead

Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap, by Titian ca. 1510
Portrait of Samuel Ampzing, by Frans Hals 1630
Rembrandt Self Portrait, 1636
Juan de Pareja, by Diego Velázquez 1650

Portrait of a Gentleman, by Nicholas Largilliere, about 1725
Portrait of the Artist, by John Vanderlyn 1800 
Portrait of the Artist, by Charles Loring Elliot 1850
Portrait of Andy, by James Wyeth 1976

Ron With Smile and Arms Crossed, Owen Mills

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