Capturing a likeness—through the ages

It’s a small exhibit, filling just one room, but what Beyond Likeness: Contemporary Considerations of the Portrait lacks in quantity, it replaces with an astounding diversity: This handful of paintings, carefully chosen by the Asheville Art Museum from the permanent collection of the North Carolina State Museum in Raleigh, spans five centuries.

“It’s about as varied an exhibit as you’ll ever find,” trumpets slated guest speaker Joseph Covington, the State Museum’s curator. “It’s a [study of] the different types of … art that all came out of a desire to create a portrait.” He points out that the word “contemporary” in the exhibit’s subtitle refers not to the pictures themselves, but to the approaches to portraiture he’ll discuss in his Dec. 10 Asheville lecture, as well as the fresh views of the subject he hopes museumgoers will take home after witnessing the exhibit.

It’s less about the portraits themselves than about the tales lurking within, observes Asheville Art Museum curator Frank Thompson.

“Each [painting] has a story behind it,” he says. Andrew Wyeth’s piercing “Sea Dog,” for example, a study of crusty seaman Walt Anderson, bristles even louder after you learn that Wyeth’s father, illustrator N.C. Wyeth, disapproved of his son’s friendship with Anderson, who was reputed to be a pirate.

Covington uses 17th-century Dutch painter Govert Flinck’s pair of paintings — “Portrait of a Gentleman, 1646” and “Portrait of a Lady, 1646” — as further evidence of hidden meanings within posed portraits. The calm-eyed gentleman and lady are a married couple; the “lady,” in particular, radiates conjugal contentment. Yet why did they choose to pose separately? “The only thing that links them together is the [portrait’s] background,” points out Thompson.

Sometimes, the story resides as much in the artist as in the subject. American painter Rembrandt Peale was only 17 when he executed his life-sketch of George Washington, in 1795. In 1823, nearly a quarter-century after Washington’s death (and 28 years after Peale’s encounter with the president) Peale declared himself “one of the few persons now living, who can speak of their own impressions … concerning the personal appearance of Washington.”

“As time went on, Peale was considered the only artist alive who could draw Washington from [having seen him in] life,” explains Thompson. “In the early 19th century, as we began to develop national symbols, Washington had become a cult figure.”

Peale continued to hone Washington’s likeness for a good portion of his own life; the exhibit features an 1855 rendition of that fateful meeting between teenager and founding father.

Several of the works featured are family studies. The 1659 Dutch work “Captain Job Jansz Cuyter and His Family,” by Nicolaes Maes, depicts the captain, his wife and a litter of children — watched over by three dead offspring hovering in the clouds. This dramatic seaside portrait — done in dark, violent colors — is eerily illuminated by the serious, absurdly adult faces of the living children.

William Merritt Chase’s 1904 piece, on the other hand, calls as much attention to the subjects’ sumptuous dress as to their faces. “Portrait Group” features the artist’s children — Dorothy, Helen and Bob — posed on a white settee at the Chases’ Long Island summer home. The older girl strikes a touchingly formal pose, the boy stares ahead with an angelic smile, and the younger girl is completely consumed with her doll. Chase once said that “a portrait should always be something more than a mere likeness. It should be a picture, as well as a portrait.” The determined loveliness of “Portrait Group” bears out his philosophy.

Among the British upper classes of the late-18th and early-19th centuries, portrait painting was a kind of performance art, with the emphasis placed on the painter’s ability to accurately immortalize the sitter. It was not a pastime reserved solely for established painters: Any gentleman (or lady: Jane Austen’s characters are forever sketching each other, it seems) could have a go at it. Beyond Likeness features two paintings of the era: Sir Joshua Reynolds’ “Miss Anna Maria Patten” and Sir Martin Archer Shee’s “Portrait of a Gentleman.” The subjects are opulently, flatteringly rendered (the gentleman’s mien is especially grandiose), and yet the concrete identity of the respective creators is a mystery. In each case, the painter’s name is shackled with the uneasy prefix “attributed to.”

And 20th-century portraits often include an invisible, but still influential, subject: the specter of loneliness. In the Russian-born American Moses Soyer’s 1972 work “Martucci,” an old man sits with downcast eyes, shoulders sagging with memories and mouth rigid with unimaginable grief. It is a study in despondency, and the work’s prevalent shades of rusty gray-green hardly forecast hope around the bend.

Alex Katz’s 1958 painting “Family Album” is the “sketchiest” of the works exhibited. Detail, here, is pared down to pure suggestion. What appear to be a grandfather, father, mother (or older daughter — her age is uncertain) and young boy sit on a bench. The background is washed-out gray nothingness. The young woman holds a cigarette and wears a preoccupied smirk; the older man looks blandly into the distance; and the boy ignores them all, his nose in a book. But it’s the world-weary younger man who draws attention: The only figure standing, his defeat is captured expertly in his mouth and eyebrows, and in the way his hand is shoved in his pocket.

Interestingly, the people in “Family Album” were not actually related. And, appropriately, they appear here like a pack of strangers, herded together against their will and photographed in some dismal park the day before the world ends.

Speaking of the medium that has largely replaced portraiture as the primary means of capturing a likeness, is it possible that the photograph will ever totally overthrow the need to render, more slowly, the million shades of mortal expression?

No, believes Covington. “It’s not possible to conceive of a time when artists will not be obsessed with the human form and the human face,” he proclaims with conviction.


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