This article first appeared in brutjournal‘s June 2022 issue. See part two, also in this current issue.

by Edward M. Gómez

Paintings by the Minnesota-based artist Alma Realm: Left: “Opening Face Portrait,” 18 x 24 inches, collage and mixed media on primed paper; the artist says: “It’s a self-portrait. I was expressing the feeling of discarding an old persona [that was getting] in the way of the new. I find it simpler to experiment with the psychology of the subject if it is my own portrait.” Right: “Jessica and Marilyn,” 18 x 24 inches, mixed media on primed paper; Realm observes: “This is from my sensory memory. I wanted to extend the warm personality of my beautiful friend and her daughter.” Photos of artworks courtesy of the artist

Throughout the history of art, perhaps no subject has been more compelling than the human face.

Vases of flowers on tabletops, epic battle scenes, chubby cherubs frolicking with nymphs and deities, landscapes, slices of urban or rustic life, and abstract forms galore — artists have been depicting what they find around them or what their imaginations have conjured up ever since prehistoric cave dwellers scratched outlines of animals on their living-room walls with the ash-sticky tips of fire-burned sticks.

Caravaggio (1571-1610), “Narcissus,” circa 1600, oil on canvas, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome. Photo from Wikipedia

As for our fascination with portraits, should we blame it on Narcissus, that handsome, ancient Greek youth-god who, in a pre-Instagram age, just couldn’t get enough of his own reflection on the surface of a clear, still pond, only to die of thirst and starvation from staring too long and longingly at his own image?

Then there is the near-obsession that Edward G. Robinson, playing a psychology professor in director Fritz Lang’s 1944 film noir The Woman in the Window, seems to have for an oil painting he notices one evening in the display window of an art gallery next door to the private club where he will be dining with some friends. A portrait in an elaborate frame of an attractive young woman, the picture beguiles and bewitches him, and causes him to become the protagonist in a complex tale whose ending packs an unexpected, Through the LookingGlass twist.

Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett in The Woman in the Window (1944, directed by Fritz Lang)

The subject of portraits and portrait-making in painting, sculpture, and countless other media and genres, is vast in its scope and long in its history, encompassing everything from awkward, medieval European depictions of long-necked Madonnas and stiff-bodied saints to Renaissance painters’ masterful exercises in verisimilitude based on their studies of anatomy and clever use of perspective techniques. All those eyes in old portraits that gaze straight out at viewers and then, uncannily, seem to continue staring right at them no matter from what angle or from what distance such observers might approach them — that eye-positioning trick is right out of every skilled portraitist’s textbook.

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), “Nonchaloir (Repose),” 1911, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Photo from the museum’s website

In more modern Western art, skilled draftsmen like Henri Matisse or Pablo Picasso could render faithful likenesses of their human subjects with just a few economical, knowing, well-placed lines, while a painter like John Singer Sargent could conjure up whole pageants of elegance and luxe in the incandescent brushstrokes of his pictures of high-society grandes dames and public figures, and an artist like Frida Kahlo could do Narcissus one better by creating her own images of herself — on her own aesthetic and idealizing terms — for herself and for posterity. Today, a painter like Kehinde Wiley has expended the parameters of portraiture in exciting ways with his depictions of contemporary Black men and women that dip deeply into Western art history’s canon of techniques and conventions related to the portrayal of subjects in heroic, venerable ways.

What makes portraiture something more than merely an exercise in producing images that purposefully, ideally, or hopefully resemble their subjects is the ability of the most skillful portrait-makers to capture a quality about them that is intangible but still discernible and real; call it a person’s palpable emotional-psychological or psychic energy, or his or her unique aura.

For an artist to sense and seize this ineffable force and preserve it in a work of art is no small challenge, and it is not a technical trick that can be easily taught. It is, in portrait-making, the equivalent of the “swing” that, as the old Duke Ellington standard puts it, leaves a jazz composition feeling lifeless if it is lacking and cannot be felt.

Lisa Remeny, “Tenor in Twilight,” 2022, oil on canvas, 48 x 24 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist, who says: “This painting developed out of an ink-on-paper drawing I made in 2019. I always approach portraits with an economy of line, with a suggestion of the form rather than direct representation, and always working from life. I start some portraits as small line drawings and then later develop them into larger oil paintings.”

It’s this aspect of portrait-making that interests us, in particular — how artists manage to capture and convey their subjects’ invisible but inescapable vibes and how such an accomplishment enriches their work. We’re ruminating on these themes in this month’s issue of brutjournal, with a batch of articles in which artists share their observations about the pleasures and challenges of portrait-making.

(Scroll down to see a portfolio of contemporary portraits and some of their creators’ comments about them. We’ll be adding to this selection as the month unfolds.)

Mark Milroy, “Portrait of Silas and Lilly,” 2019, oil on canvas, 44 x 42 inches. Collection of John Durkin and Diane Margaritas, Roslyn, New York; photo courtesy of the artist. Milroy says: “I always prefer to work from life. It’s very hard to capture a person’s aura from a photo. One would need to have a close relationship with the person. That is the magic with which you want to imbue the portrait. Round faces, square heads, big ears, small ears — each of us is so beautiful and unique that what I need from someone is a willingness to want to sit for me. When they’re engaged, that’s when the sparks can fly.”
Dan Knight, “Self-portrait,” 2016, ink on letter-paper size sheet of paper. Photo courtesy of the artist
“Foujita,” the French-born, Japan-based artist Botchy-Botchy’s undated, ink-on-paper image of a monkey offers an unexpected portrait of an animal. Photo courtesy of the artist
Cathy Ward, “Ding Dong, Pussies in the Well,” 1989, oil paint on brown paper and Hessian sacks collaged on cardboard. Photo courtesy of the artist. These are portraits of specific cats. The artist explains: “In the past, large cat populations were often dealt with by placing kittens in sacks and throwing them down wells. A pupil at the convent school I attended as a young girl regularly told me what her father had done to the last litter, as it was a regular occurrence. For me, hearing this was like listening to a horror story. I was from a family that never hurt or killed anything. We gave stray cats food and shelter. To me, they symbolized the dispossessed.”
Mark Milroy, “Portrait of Douglas Crase,” 2013-14, oil on canvas, 33 x 27 inches. Collection of Douglas Crase, New York City; photo courtesy of the artist. Regarding photos of his portrait subjects that he might consult for reference, Milroy says: “I always have to put a photo away or make a drawing from a photo and then work from the drawing. If I start from life, I’ll use a photo as a reference. It’s hard to describe, but there is a flatness to a photo, obviously, but I don’t mean flat like a table top but rather flat as in one-note. I always need more than one reference but always, my preferred choice is to first work from life.”
Lisa Remeny, “Shirlee,” 2019, ink and watercolor on paper, 11 x 7.5 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist. About her subject here, Remeny notes, “Shirlee is a personal trainer and real-estate agent who requested that her portrait contain elements referring to her two occupations. This ink-and-watercolor image actually looks like her, even though she is much more beautiful in real life!”