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Thursday, March 30, 2023

About Face: Portraiture as Subject

by Annette DiMeo Carlozzi

rtists have explored the human face since ancient times. About Face: Portraiture as Subject at the Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin, gathers together a choice selection of portraits in diverse mediums and across a range of time periods to examine how personality and character are portrayed in art. Forty works by leading artists known for their probing investigations of the genre are featured, among them, Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, John Singer Sargent, Diego Rivera, Sir Jacob Epstein, Antonio Berni, Alice Neel, Chuck Close, Robert Henri, Andy Warhol, Yasumasa Morimura, Oscar Muñoz, and Kehinde Wiley.

The works in About Face are organized into related groupings that examine both historical and contemporary notions of portraiture in a suite of small, elegant galleries that enhance the intimacy between artwork and visitor, portrait subject and viewer. Groupings suggest general concepts that unite the seven or eight varied works within each cluster: Capturing the Likeness; Exploring Attributes; Multiple Parts Accumulating to Complex Wholes; and How Artists Portray Themselves. Programs featuring the exhibition’s images on several social networking sites explore their common focus on constructing and communicating personae to a broad public. About Face gives the museum a lively voice in that current conversation and suggests that works of art still have much to teach us, even when placed within deceptively simple frameworks, like portraiture.

Chuck Close (b. 1940, Monroe, Washington)
Self-Portrait, 1999
Relief etching, 41 x 31-1/4 inches
Purchase through the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Jack S. Blanton Sr., 2009

An accomplished painter originally recognized in the 1960s for his photorealist portraits, Chuck Close has pushed the boundaries of printmaking for more than thirty years, using diverse and often completely unique processes to create his work. Close begins every project by mapping the subject’s image onto a massive grid and labeling each unit in the grid with a number or letter. In a process that recalls topographic mapmaking, he produces his images block by block. The preparatory grid is barely visible in his early portraiture; however, in recent decades Close has enlarged the component units in order to emphasize his process. This relief etching, belonging to his later style, is executed on a magnified, mosaic-like grid. The individual squares are filled with an assortment of abstracted shapes—circles, squares, crosses, and lines—that collectively construct the image of the artist’s face. Less concerned with a precise rendering of particular features, this portrait captures a general impression of the artist’s likeness that emphasizes faceting and shifts in perception.

Alice Neel (1900, Merion, Pennsylvania–1984, New York)
David Bourdon and Gregory Battcock, 1970
Oil on canvas, 59-3/4 x 56 inches
Archer M. Huntington Museum Fund, 1983

Alice Neel’s painting of two well-known New York art critics is uncomfortably provocative. The unexpected intimacy of the subjects’ poses, their opposing states of dress and undress, and their awkward relationships to the chairs that support them are not typical portrait conventions, earticlely for works that identify their sitters in the title. Best known for her portraits of her children, her neighbors, and the artists, critics, musicians, and writers with whom she socialized—Neel was an uncompromising observer of life who captured each sitter’s state of mind as well as the details of their bearing. Her style was informal but intense; she quickly rendered those features and gestures that captured her subjects’ essences, then grounded them in particular settings—beds, chairs, and often the rooms of her own home, since she could rarely afford a separate painting studio. A master of realism, Neel was committed to the primacy of psychological truth, looking for charged moments to portray, as in this vignette that just predates the breakup of the venturesome couple.

Mortimer Menpes (1855, Port Adelaide, S. Australia–1938 Pangbourne, England)
Portrait of Whistler in White Ducks, circa 1879–1881
Drypoint and chine collé, 13-3/8 x 10-1⁄16 inches
Gift of the children of L.M. Tonkin, 1966

In this unusual portrait we see a student capturing an impression—or, rather, five impressions—of his teacher. The subject is James McNeill Whistler, and the portraitist, his pupil, Mortimer Menpes. Why the varying angles and expressions? Perhaps Menpes is trying to suggest that a single pose cannot convey the complexity of the man he studied under. Whistler’s penetrating gaze sets up a knowing relationship between artist and sitter. This sense of intimacy and the experimental nature of the composition suggest Whistler’s collaboration in creating his image. Whistler was a master at cultivating his own celebrity, alternatively presenting himself as bohemian, dandy, and temperamental avant-garde genius. Menpes’s portrait both reveals and maintains Whistler’s enigmatic, multifaceted personality.

George Romney (1734, Dalton-in-Furness, England–1802, Kendal, England)
Lady Hamilton as Ambassadress, 1791
Oil on canvas, 62-5/8 x 52-3/8 inches
Bequest of Jack G. Taylor, 1991

The sweeping composition, bold drawing, and judicious use of color in Lady Hamilton as Ambassadress indicate why George Romney was considered one of the best British portraitists of the eighteenth century and a serious rival to Sir Joshua Reynolds. Romney painted many portraits of Lady Hamilton, a woman who rose from obscurity and poverty through the rigid ranks of British society to become the wife of an ambassador and the mistress of Lord Horatio Nelson, the storied admiral of the British fleet. Romney began painting Lady Hamilton shortly after they were introduced in 1782, titling one of his earliest depictions of that year Lady Hamilton as Nature (Frick Collection, New York). This is the last portrait of his famous muse, which he made from life in 1791 when she returned to London to marry Sir William Hamilton, ambassador to Naples. An erupting Mount Vesuvius in the background signals the locale. Romney kept this portrait until 1800, when he finally gave it to Lady Hamilton’s mother.

Robert Henri (1865, Cincinnati–1929, New York)
The Old Model (Old Spanish Woman), circa 1912
Oil on canvas, 24 x 20-1⁄16 inches
Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1991

Influential teacher and outspoken founder of a new, progressive style of realism in the United States, Robert Henri is perhaps best known for his acutely sensitive portraits of common people, whom he sought out during his travels around the world. Unlike his contemporaries, who painted commissions of wealthy industrialists and their families, Henri preferred what he considered to be the deeper and more complex characters of workers, peasants, beggars, and entertainers. He was particularly fond of Spanish subjects, as evidenced by this portrait of an older woman, and visited Spain several times for lengthy painting excursions between 1906 and 1912, and again from 1923 to 1924. Perhaps because of the breadth of his foreign experiences, Henri was a champion of the particularities of regional character and encouraged fellow artists to paint details of everyday American life.

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606, Leiden, Netherlands–1669, Amsterdam)
Self-Portrait Wearing a Soft Cap (The Three Mustaches), circa 1634
Etching, Bartsch 2, Hind 57, White & Boon 2, only state; 3-7⁄16 x 2-13⁄16 inches
2002 Blanton Ball Purchase

Self-portraiture was at the core of Rembrandt’s art. It provided the foundation of his understanding of personality, from which he produced incomparable renderings of individual feeling. Never formally published or reprinted, early etchings such as this were created for the artist’s own satisfaction and are therefore among his most rare. Here he presents himself in a rakish cap, ever sensitive but quite confident. It is the most direct and emotionally mature of Rembrandt’s first campaign involving studies of the self. The early self-portraits were also experimental in technique. Their incredible spontaneity, economy, and size suggest intimate sketches. Along with some related portraits, these prints represent the most radical expression to date of the conceptual and procedural relationship between etching and drawing. In this sense, they also predict Rembrandt’s accomplishments as the greatest master of etching.

Nicolas de Largilliere (1656–1746, Paris)
Portrait of a Man, circa 1715
Oil on canvas, 36-5⁄16 x 29-11⁄16 inches
The Suida-Manning Collection

Prolific portraitist Nicolas de Largillière enjoyed the patronage of the royal families in France and England, as well as those members of the aristocracy who frequently had their painted portraits reproduced as engravings in order to distribute them more widely. With the rise of the middle class, Largillière’s clientele came to include the high bourgeoisie, among them well-placed women and artists. He preferred his bourgeois patrons to those at court, because they paid better and on time and were usually less demanding. Over the course of his career, and perhaps in response to the greater variety of subjects his portraiture chronicled, Largillière’s characterizations became less formal, more vibrant. Earticlely casual in garb and amiable in attitude, the sitter here has not been identified, but may well have been a fellow artist.

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528, Nuremberg)
Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1526
Engraving, Meder 105, state a of I; 10 x 7-11⁄16 inches
Purchase through the generosity of the Still Water Foundation, 1991

Portrait engraving was a significant aspect of Albrecht Dürer’s late activity. His portrait of the great humanist Desiderius Erasmus is his largest and most complex. Dürer drew the sitter on a visit to the Netherlands in 1520; by 1525 Erasmus lamented that he had still not seen the promised print. Returning to the project, Dürer borrowed the composition from a painting of Erasmus by Quentin Massys (Louvre, Paris) and inserted his earlier bust-length study. Seeing the engraving, Erasmus noted that the likeness was “not altogether striking.” Later observers have often criticized the composition as awkward. Dürer’s technique, however, rises to a level of differentiation unusual in the late engravings. The light has a pervasiveness and a mystery that suggest both the scholar’s theological concerns and the artist’s own late spirituality. Then there is the conceit of the frame in the background, rhyming with the print’s shape, and bearing illuminating inscriptions. The first, in Latin, identifies the artist and the sitter. The second, in Greek, notes, “His writings offer a better likeness.” Together they locate the portrait in the moment, enhancing an extraordinarily modern meditation upon the nature and limits of visual representation.

Antonio Berni (1905, Rosario, Argentina–1981, Buenos Aires)
Retrato de Ramona [Portrait of Ramona], 1963
Relief etching, artist’s proof, 24-15/16 x 12-5/16 inches
Gift of the Museum of Modern Art, 1982

Antonio Berni was among the group of artists in 1960s Argentina who reclaimed the human figure as a vehicle for critiquing social injustice. He developed elaborate narratives of marginalized characters who he featured in the paintings and large-scale collages that earned him renown. Within Berni’s prolific output, his two most established fictional subjects were a street urchin named Juanito Laguna and his girlfriend, the beautiful Ramona Montiel, seen here. Berni painted her repeatedly over the course of three decades, inventing a life burdened with poverty and exploitation. Using an experimental technique of embossing recycled objects in high relief into wet paper, the artist created vivid, three-dimensional printed imagery that could be editioned and distributed widely, aiding in his goal to promote social change. In this work Berni uses ornamental plastic lace, buttons, and fabric to frame Ramona’s portrait and describe the subject’s eyes, hair, and clothing. The work’s very materiality alludes to the character’s transformation from seamstress to prostitute, and embodies its metaphoric meaning and hopes for redemption, which would have been well understood by the audiences of his time.

Oliver Herring (b. 1964, Heidelberg, Germany)
Patrick, 2004
Foam core, museum board, digital c-print photographs, and polystyrene, 42 x 18 x 27-1/2 inches
Partial and pledged gift of Jeanne and Michael Klein, 2005

Contemporary artists’ experimentation with mediums and materials often produces unexpected approaches to portraiture. For instance, a man named Patrick posed for artist Oliver Herring over several studio sessions, during which time Herring photographed the model in intimate detail. The artist then carved a shape that resembled the seated figure and covered it with a “skin” made of thousands of bits of those photographic images, in this way creating a new kind of object—half photograph, half sculpture. As an image, it is uncanny and contradictory; the subtle variations in the commercially processed skin tones, sutured together, somehow read as a living, breathing being. Fixed and yet seemingly ephemeral, the finished form embodies and alludes to the passing of time, the perception of change, and the integration of small moments into the fabric of a life. Strongly flavored by the artist’s laborious working process and exceptionally thorough and precise observation, Patrick nevertheless appears aloof from that voyeuristic gaze, closed away in a private state that belies his half-naked vulnerability.

Nicola Costantino (b. 1964, Rosario, Argentina)
Nicola Seamstress, 2008
C-print, 49 x 41 inches
Purchase through the Pinta Museum Acquisition Program with generosity from the Arts Connection Foundation, Gail and Louis Adler, Michael Chesser, and Melissa Jones, 2009

In contemporary art, artists often generate images of themselves acting out different personas to comment on history, politics, and identity. This photograph by contemporary artist Nicola Costantino evokes the rich legacy of a historically important work of Argentinean art by recreating one of its memorable passages and casting herself as its protagonist. Costantino reinterprets a seamstress shop from a famous 1937 painting by Argentinean Antonio Berni (1905-1981). In Berni’s original, the seamstress appears as a tired worker, upstaged by a young male dancer who may represent her daydreams as she toils at her tedious job. In Costantino’s reenactment, she models the same posture as Berni’s painted character, but uses her own expressive face to convey the silent strength of the seamstress. By doing this, Costantino claims authority for the character, and for women, both as subjects and creators of art.

Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977, Los Angeles)
Le Roi a la Chasse, 2006
Oil on canvas, 106 x 82 x 5 inches
Promised gift of Julie Blakeslee and John Thornton, 2006

Le Roi a la Chasse depicts someone the artist Kehinde Wiley encountered on the street one day. Wiley often chooses his subjects, usually young African-American men, at random and then portrays them in highly theatrical ways. This painting’s title and the subject’s pose borrow directly from Anthony van Dyck’s seventeenth-century hunting portrait of Charles I. Its ornate frame and lavish floral pattern reminiscent of nineteenth-century French wallpaper communicate wealth and importance. In this body of work that has earned him international acclaim, Wiley quotes and questions the conventions of portraiture and how they convey authority and status upon their subjects. Here, depicting an ordinary person at heroic scale, he examines how we construct our personae and what society interprets from our messages. As a member of the hip-hop generation, he is particularly intrigued with how young men of color claim respect through gesture and ornament.

About Face: Portraiture as Subject, on view at the Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin, through September 4, 2011. The gallery experience is accompanied by a bi-lingual audio tour offering insights into the relationships between the artists and their subjects; a family guide; and a series of web-based videos featuring curators and other experts discussing some of the works in the show. For further information call (512) 471-7324 or visit

Annette DiMeo Carlozzi is deputy director for art and programs at the Blanton and led the curatorial team for this project. Some text here has been adapted from Blanton Museum of Art: Guide to the Collection (2006). Additional research was provided by Dr. Colette Crossman and Jennifer Garner.