Friday, January 13, 2017

A Multiheaded Monster

Anthony van Dyck, "Triple Portrait of Charles I," ca  1635
Painting a multi-subject portrait is complicated. For one thing, unlike a single portrait, several subjects offer many opportunities to go wrong, from individual likeness to relative sizes of heads and so on. Nonetheless, there are wonderful examples of such multiple portraits. One of my favorites is by Anthony van Dyck and though admittedly only one sitter it deserves mention. The portrait is three views of Charles I of England (the one who lost his head). It was intended as a guide for Lorenzo Bernini, the Italian sculptor, to serve as a guide for a marble bust. The bust was lost in the Whitehall fire at the end of the 17th century, but the portrait is in the British Royal Collection. But these images are of a single person and most multi-sitter portraits are of families or groups and therefore require a serviceable and different likeness of each.

John Sargent, "The Pailleron Children," 1881
One of the most famous portraitists of all time was John Sargent,  who did a number of family portraits, some of them truly memorable. His portraits of the Wyndham sisters and of Mr. & Mrs. Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes are well-known favorites. Mr. Sargent eventually and famously became so bored with what he called "paughtraits" that he eventually quit painting them. Yet it is for his portraits that he is best remembered.

Mr. Sargent's first double portrait was the children of his friend Edouard Pailleron. The painting is in the Des Moines Art Center permanent collection, where I've seen it scores of times. According to a memoir the little girl wrote much later, the artist and children equally loathed the entire experience, and it certainly shows on their faces. Mr. Sargent had a knack for likeness and expression. Some have said that despite the obvious sibling relationship this is more like two separate portraits stitched together. One of the beauties of seeing a work up close is the opportunity to really study how the painter laid down his strokes. Close examination of this one reveals really thrilling brushwork, almost like Franz Hals, in the satin dress and other passages, even down to the hands and fingernails. Mr. Sargent was never an impressionist, but neither was he an academician. The parents seem to have liked it, and it was reportedly a sensation at the Salon of 1881.
"Mr & Mrs I.N. Phelps Stokes," 1897
On the other hand, Mr. Sargent's 1897 portrait of the Stokes couple is quite conventional. They are painted standing full-length and life-size almost as if facing a mirror. His brushwork is vigorous, and her expression is lively and engaging. The likeness seems accurate, but there is something odd about the figures and heads. When I've seen this work in person, its sheer size at about three by seven feet, not counting the frame is almost overwhelming, the figures being life-size. But Edith Stokes' head always seems too small so that the figures overwhelm the faces, and Isaac's face is in shadow besides. It's clearly in the Sargent lineage of unconventional portraits, like the Boit sisters, but less successful. Incidentally, a photo exists of the Stokes couple in which Edith's head looks larger and her face is fuller. Perhaps by the time Mr. Sargent did this one he was already unhappy doing portraits.

My thoughts turned to these and other multiple portraits because these last several weeks I've been working on a family portrait myself. It's not the first multiple-sitter portrait I've done but it's the first in a long while, and it takes some getting used to. The proportions, positioning, skin tones and the like have to be accurate and the likeness ought to be there as well.

This is another foster child portrait, and like other portraits of foster children that I posted last fall, intended for a Heart Gallery. The children in this image are orphaned siblings who are living in foster care, hoping for a permanent home. As is clear in the painting these are somewhat older children. The oldest is probably in his middle teens and the little sister is perhaps 8 or 9 years old at most. Painting this image was tricky because of the three different ages of the kids, the obvious differences in sizes and differences in skin tones. The boys were a bit more ruddy than their sister. Further, with only a single photographic reference in hand making them appear solid and dimensional was another challenge. This piece is 20x24 on stretched canvas.

Triple Portrait of Charles I
John Singer Sargent Complete Works
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