It is likely that we have in our lifetime been exposed to many portraits and are familiar with the formulaic poses and visual literacy of traditional portraiture. From photographs to paintings, to sculpture--reproducing and immortalizing a person’s physicality is a time-honored tradition. Yet portraits can extend far beyond merely reflecting back the likeness of the sitter.
Some portraits, such as David Hockney's lithograph of his friend, Joe, or John Sloan’s etching of his mother in the next gallery, serve as memorials to passed loved ones. Portraits serving this function are often created posthumously, with details of the subject being drawn from memory or, in later years, from remaining photographs. How might this affect how the sitter looks? To what extent do the artist’s subjectivities impact the painting’s details and appearance?
Take a closer look at Hockney’s Joe—would you be able to identify him if you met him today? The work’s loose, sketched line quality does little in the way of providing a lifelike rendering. Instead, it feels as if the artist was exchanging detail for the ability to capture a last fleeting moment with his friend.
Portraits can also provide information regarding people’s lives. As you explore the rest of the galleries, observe the objects that occupy the space around a sitter. What story do they share? A strong example of this is the portrait of Thomas Edison in the next gallery. The artist takes care to draw our focus not only to Edison’s contemplative expression, but also to his emphasis on glass and light. The result is a portrait less of Edison himself than of his genius and innovative spirit.