Permanent Collection - The Changing Face of Portraiture

December 3, 2010 - March 6, 2011



This exhibit from the Museum's Permanent Collection explores how portraiture has changed,and yet not changed, over time.

What do we want from portraiture?   Apparently it should be a recognizable image of a loved one, a revered figure or a compelling personality.  Any yet, the encounter must also be one of surprise.  We rely on the artist’s imagination to help us see past a subject’s outward appearance toward a larger reality.  Throughout history, artists have made their own features, as well as those of family and friends, their primary subject of portraiture.  As the twentieth century came to a close, there was fear that the traditional methods of portraiture hand entered a permanent decline.

In earlier American portraits, it is social stature and a good likeness, rather than deep psychological penetration or sentimental softening, that is the real issue.  The commissioned portrait in the 18th and 19th century was a sign of social position and a way of assuring that position to one’s posterity. By the beginning of the 20th century, a clear reaction against the refined upper-class or upper-middle-class may be seen in the representations of a lower-class subject.  Working class people are depicted with a crude directness, bold slashing brushwork, which is intended to signify the authenticity and realness of the subject. 

We can derive a certain amount of interesting factual or social information from some of these works: we can learn the mode of dress in the 1800s or how a person is perceived in the 20th century.  All of tthese images provide us with an insight into a wide variety of historically conditioned, deeply held cultural assumptions about people. 

Alice Neel, John