Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Woman Reclining on a Bed, 1899, oil on canvas, 36 x 43", Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Subject, Object: Portrait Sitters as Models and Muses

Lucian Freud (b. 1922), Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995, oil on canvas, 151.3 x 219 cm.

Irving Penn, Lisa Fonssagrives.

Frida Kahlo, The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Me, and Senor Xolotl, 1949, Oil on canvas, 27-1/2 x 23-7/8", Collection of Jorge Contreras Chacel, Mexico City.

Madame Cézanne en bleu, c. 1886, Oil on canvas, 73.6 x 61 cm, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864–1946), Georgia O'Keeffe [In Black Coat with Hands to Neck], 1918, Platinum print, 11.7 x 9 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Georgia O'Keeffe, through the generosity of The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation and Jennifer and Joseph Duke, 1997, 1997.61.25.



A maxim about the movies is the importance of casting: without the right actor for the part, the part could go to anyone because it will not matter (Scarlett O’Hara notplayed by Vivien Leigh? Sam Spade not played by Bogart?). The portraitist's choice of a sitter is similar. Often, when the painter, drawer, or photographer is famous; the sitter is not. That fame, however faint or fleeting, may come to the sitter is a secondary possibility. Selection in the species, is opportunistic, though occasionally random in the artistic world.

One on one, it is a fuzzy thing to guess which portraitist-sitter relationship is strictly professional and which overlaps into the personal. John Singer Sargent’s large society portraits, of individuals and his celebrated group paintings, at first glance look like he might be psychologically wedded to the many women he posed so neatly and painted so meticulously. Only knowing how onerous it was for him, how (as the writer Osbert Sitwell once said) “he was so plainly more interested in the appurtenances of the sitters and their rooms than in their faces,” do the portraits take on a different look; now, a viewer may wonder, How much is Sargent doting on them and how much is he critiquing them? We value Sargent’s portraits of high society, like those of Rembrandt and of Goya before him, even if we make the connection, rather than the artists and the sitters.

If one portrait can fool us, a steady record makes the relationship formal or personal or both. Wandering through art history, it is remarkable but not surprising how many frank relationships have been exhibited (even exposed) with oil, watercolor, pencil, and camera in ways that seem as intimate as a novelist’s portrait of a loved or hated one: Picasso’s portraits of Dora Maar and of Fernande Olivier; Bonnard’s so-called bathroom portraits of his wife, Marthe; Cézanne’s portraits of his mistress-turned-wife, Marie-Hortense Fiquet (after so much secrecy about her early on to keep his judgmental family at bay, after his father’s death the couple separated, with Cézanne’s infamous comment, “My wife only cares for Switzerland and lemonade”); then there are Frida Kahlo’s unusual Surrealist portrait interpretations of her husband and muse, Diego Rivera, such as The Love Embrace of the Universe, in which he appears as a tiny baby in the crook of her arm; and Alex Katz’s wry color-saturated Pop portraits of his wifely muse, Ada, of whom he asked to sit for him for almost 50 years. Stieglitz’s famous photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe, nude and of her hands close-up, set store for photographic portraits by Irving Penn of his wife, Lisa Fonssagrives, and Man Ray of his love, Lee Miller.

Portraitists look for something special, in their work and in their sitters. However fresh the final work appears, it is a process of reciprocity; modeling is not easy — a friend of Sargent’s wrote to her sister after an outing, in 1907, “If we are headed off from painting, Sargent suggests we all take strychnine. This morning he said there was nothing left but hari-kari … Poor Wilfred can’t pose for more than a few minutes at a time as the position is torture after a while” — while getting it right is forever the concern for the artist. In James Lord’s slender but influential book, A Giacometti Portrait, the sculptor’s biographer records Giacometti’s daily activity of starting over while attempting to draw Lord’s portrait. Picasso’s multifarious images of Dora — bold in the red Woman with a Snood, anguished in 1937’s archetypal Picassoan Weeping Woman, nakedly alluring in Dora and the Minotaur, Cubist (and content) in Dora Maar with a Cat, 1941, among dozens of works — reveal his and her moods over their eight years together; but if, as indigenous peoples once claimed of the camera, his portraits stole her soul, one can appreciate the intimacy and the intrusiveness of such images by her famous curse: “All his portraits of me are lies. They’re all Picassos, not one is Dora Maar.”

Of contemporary portraitists, Lucian Freud is the most powerful, in content and in context of his sitters. As a retrospective in Paris’s Pompidou Centre that opened in March makes abundantly clear, Freud’s characteristically anti-portraiture style, particularly in his choice of sitters — most famously, the oversized performance artist Leigh Bowery and “Big Sue,” a middle-aged extra-plus-sized British benefits supervisor, both painted nude — creates something new out of one of art’s oldest traditions.

Generally, the portrait (as opposed to the caricature) is designed to enhance the model; the sitter’s wrinkles may show, as in the works of Philip Pearlstein and Alice Neel, but the measure of craft ensures such wrinkles and crinkles (even of elderly subjects, even nude) are sexy. Portraitists such as Andy Warhol cribbed the look they wanted from photographs, which present a different texture; while others like Chuck Close and Elizabeth Peyton rely on their celebrity peers, about whom most of us already have a mental portrait. The traditional demands of the portrait — to fill out the sitter’s social caste and add touches of a grateful courier (especially in commissioned works) — gradually morphed into more astringent criticisms by the twentieth-century. Freud’s portraits of sitters, chosen by him, represent the opposite view: the subject is the object. Not in Sargent’s manner, where he endured dilettantes and debutantes to make his living, but in a more personal, direct way. Nudes will catch one’s eye.

It is Freud’s approach — in-your-face naked flesh, whether of a pregnant Kate Moss or 280-pound “Big Sue” — which gives his portraits their sheen, their, pardon the word, weightiness. Evening in the Studio (1993), for example, is prototypical Freud: a massively heavy woman lying nude on her back, with her pubis on view, dominates the lower half of the canvas, while a younger (thinner, clothed) woman sits on a chair above and a dog on a bed to her right forms the third side in the triangle of this triumphant, if enigmatic, work. Naked Man, Back View (1991-92) is, as its title commands, a reverse portrait of sorts, of the six feet two Bowery: he captures one’s gaze, like a big (nude) Buddha; and it is the viewer, not the artist nor the sitter, who backs up. The art critic John Richardson has written of “the sitter’s mystery” as being as important to a Freud portrait as “the structure of a face or body.”

After all, when one looks at a portrait, whether of Picasso’s or Bonnard’s or Freud’s, one really means to look behind the person, to the artist. Who inspired him, and why? Lucian Freud’s portraits have come attached with mystery and raised eyebrows. Who gets lovers, much less friends, to splay themselves for public consumption? His paintings are much cooler, much less emotionally fraught, than Picasso’s Dora Maars; yet the totality of his “Big Sue” portraits, for example, means he does not need to paint her over and over, in the totemic way Bonnard painted almost four hundred portraits of his wife — and after her death he turned to empty interiors and still lifes. One notices the sexuality, the fleshy flesh, immediately; only then do Freud’s paintings begin to come to life, for the viewer to contemplate who the sitter is and why he or she has been posed this way or that. Lucian Freud’s portraits never release their grip, though their grasp on art, personal history and mystery is confined to the artist: the viewer is on the outside, forever looking in.

Man Ray, Electricity - Lee Miller, 1931 (Rayograph).

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Dora Maar with Cat (Dora Maar au Chat), 1941, Oil on canvas, 128.3 x 95.3 cm, Private Collection.


Lucian Freud (British, born Germany, 1922), Naked Man, Back View, 1991-92, Oil on canvas, 183.5 x 137.5 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1993 (1993.71).