Museum  June 29, 2018  Karen Chernick

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Face to Face” With Portraits of Artists

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Isamu Noguchi, c. 1941-1945, Arnold Newman. Gelatin silver print. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of R. Sturgis and Marion B. F. Ingersoll, 1945.

Pinpoint a figure staring directly out at you in an early Renaissance painting and chances are it’s a surreptitious self-portrait, slipped into a crowded scene. It took time for artists to feel comfortable devoting entire canvases to their own likenesses, and longer for masters such as Rembrandt van Rijn to return to self-portraiture over and over. But with the invention of photography in 1839, things changed. Artists could quickly and cheaply craft self-images that were divorced from their work, playing with their personas without wielding paintbrushes or chisels. They could depict themselves as artists, or not. They could allow curious viewers into their personal lives, or not. They could adopt another identity, aided by the filter of an external portraitist.

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Milton Avery, 1944. Gelatin silver print. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of R. Sturgis and Marion B. F. Ingersoll, 1945.

A recently opened exhibition of over 100 photographs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), Face to Face: Portraits of Artists, introduces visitors to the flesh-and-blood creatives behind oil-on-canvas works hung in nearby galleries. “These wonderful portraits feel a little bit like family photos that we’re excited to share with you,” curator Peter Barberie notes in the show’s introductory wall text. 

The show begins with a classic studio portrait of 19th century French caricaturist Honoré Daumier and ends with contemporary photographer Alice O’Malley’s semi-nude depiction of Manhattan drag queen, Mistress Formika. Clearly, the formality of the photographic portrait has changed over the years. The fascination with this mode of image-making has not.

Zora Neale Hurston, April 3, 1935, Carl Van Vechten
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Zora Neale Hurston, April 3, 1935, Carl Van Vechten. Gelatin silver print. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of John Mark Lutz, 1965.

Elsa Schiaparelli, 1948
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Elsa Schiaparelli, 1948 (negative), c. 1948 (print). Gelatin silver print. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of the artist, 2005.

Ella Fitzgerald, January 19, 1940
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Ella Fitzgerald, January 19, 1940. Gelatin silver print. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of John Mark Lutz, 1965.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo with Lucile and Arnold Blanch at Coyoacán, c. 1930, Peter A. Juley & Son
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo with Lucile and Arnold Blanch at Coyoacán, c. 1930, Peter A. Juley & Son, New York City, active 1910s - 1970s. Gelatin silver print. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Carl Zigrosser, 1975.

Some portraits relate to the depicted artist’s work. A series of topless photographs of Frida Kahlo taken by her art dealer, Julien Levy, shows an intimate view of the beloved Mexican artist resembling the painted self-portraits for which she is celebrated. A carefully composed Piet Mondrian portrait, by Arnold Newman, shows the painter standing near a multipaned French door, with many geometric layers of screens and one of his characteristic abstract works in the foreground.

But the majority of portraits show artists outside the studio: Dadaist Marcel Duchamp smokes a cigarette, Fauvist Henri Matisse stands in his living room, modernist Stuart Davis sits near a painting turned around against the wall, revealing only the stretchers. We may be curious about the canvas hidden from view but are forced, instead, to look at its maker.

Face to Face: Portraits of Artists is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through October 14, 2018.

About the Author

Karen Chernick

Karen Chernick is an arts and culture journalist who loves a good story.

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