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Lecture frames the contemporary portrait

By Middlebury Campus

Author: Isabel McWilliams

Students and faculty alike could not help but react with excited laughter, intrigued head nods and surprised exclamations as Director of the Middlebury College Museum of Art and Walter Cerf Distinguished College Professor of History of Art & Architecture Richard Saunders gave a lecture entitled “The Contemporary Portrait in American Society.” The exciting lecture was based on his current book, “The American Face: Portraiture and Identity in American Culture.”

Professor Saunders prefaced his lecture with an introduction that demonstrated his authority on the subject of American portraiture. He wrote his dissertation on 18th-century American portraiture, which was eventually transformed into two books, one of which was on John Smibert, the first trained professional painter of the pre-Revolutionary era. During Saunders’ career at the Middlebury College Museum of Art, he arranged an exhibition of 100 drawings by Horatio Greenough, the first prominent American sculptor. These drawings inspired him to question the meaning of portraits and their function in society, and to ultimately go beyond their art historical nature and explore their social implications. With the benefit of this enlarged perspective, Saunders carried his audience through a wide-ranging presentation that focused on the social implications of American portraiture from its beginning to the very present.

Addressing the current misconceptions related to portraiture, Saunders entertained an open approach to identifying its cultural significance. Traditional portraits of important historical figures have now become icons, no longer seen as portraits of a particular individual; they are now likely to seem stiff, formal and unmemorable – even innovative paintings such as Stuart’s portrait of George Washington or Eakins Dr. Samuel Gross (“The Gross Clinic”). Not only are these over-familiar portraits now thoroughly displaced from their original context, they become further estranged from their original nature when appropriated to advertisements. To create the Samuel Adams beer insignia, Copley’s two portraits, one of Paul Revere and the other of Samuel Adams, were combined.

That there is no resemblance between contemporary portraiture and that of the historical past is a common misconception. Many would consider the portrait miniature to be passé, whereas in fact miniatures are prolific in today’s society; think about the pictures in our wallets. During the last few years, the “daddy dolls” that depict the fathers of children who are soldiers in Iraq demonstrate another kind of miniature portrait, although we don’t think of them as such. One form of portraiture also immune to societal changes is caricature, which satirizes aspects and images of every day life. Many forget that statues are also portraits, not just commemorations of long past historical events or leaders. Having added celebrities to the repertoire of sculpture, statues currently range from Nascar idols and Mickey Mouse to Martin Luther King – their staggering size and numbers contributing to the phenomenon Saunders referred to as “the modern bronze age.”

The traditional portrait was almost always commissioned, yet although limited today, many of these portraits disguise their commissioned nature. An online “portrait” of President of the College Ronald D. Leibowitz is a photograph made to look informal so as to conceal its staged nature. In this manner, colleges, clubs, presidents and institutions of every sort still commission portraits. Formally framed portraits on the wall are similar to pictures of ourselves and others on our dorm room walls; surrounding ourselves with images either creates our identity or confirms the identity we believe we already have.

Saunders reminded the audience not to disregard the photographs we take of ourselves today, casual or not, just because they do not immediately resemble the traditional portraiture style. The use of portraiture as a recording device has not changed; we have “I belong here” portraits, such as team portraits, and “I know someone” portraits in which having our picture taken with someone gives us significance through association. We also have “I won” portraits which assert identity through experience, “I made it” portraits such as graduation or marathon portraits, and the “I am in charge” portraits that many leaders rely on to assert their institutional authority.

Tension between those who quickly dismiss the traditional portrait form and those who disdain works they do not believe to be “art” will always persist. Nevertheless, portraiture has always reinforced certain characteristics of our identity as much as it constructs it – Facebook is a perfect example. When looking at a picture of ourselves, the “that doesn’t look like me” reaction shows that we have a preconceived personalized idea of our identity, and expect it to be outwardly evident. In truth, traditional and contemporary forms of portraiture stand side by side – of the two commissioned portraits of President Emeritus John McCardell, one is a traditional portrait, the other is a hologram, a form that depends upon changing interaction between the subject and the viewer.

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