There is nothing in art, better than a good portrait,
. . . and nothing worse than a bad one.
In the long and glorious history of art, the most treasured and most renowned works are portraits. Throughout the halls of magnificent museums, images of mankind prevail. All the great artists and sculptors labored, each in his own unique fashion, to describe the grandeur of mankind, whose reflection in the history of the world as a result, is well chronicled.
The life and work of a portrait painter/sculptor, can never be completely selfish. The ego and self satisfaction is of course paramount, but there is also something else beyond that, a deep responsibility to the subject that can never be ignored. When a client commissions an artist they must be able to feel that sense of responsibility, they have to know that the painter/sculptor is dedicated to define in the subject the very best that is there, to give that sense of immortality that will last through many generations, perhaps even to the end of time as we know it. It is the duty of the artist to enhance everything that is good in the personality, kinetics and likeness of the subject. Without maintaining this philosophy, the portrait artist cannot possibly succeed.
The very nature of portrait art imposes strong limits on artistic license. Landscapes, Civil War, historical and classical works, for me, though very serious, are a kind of indulgence, a form of recreation, a time to study, a time to hone my craft, a time to experiment, play and relax. The demanding responsibility of the commissioned portrait doesn’t allow for experimentation, it’s far too important to everyone concerned.
In the case of landscape and still life painting, great liberties can be taken in the name of type of medium, composition, color, mood, whatever, and the result can still be a fine artistic statement. That same latitude is not available in portraiture.
John Singer Sargent – Letter to an art student, 1901:
You say you are studying to become a portrait painter and I think you’d be making a great mistake if you kept that only in view during the time you intend to work in a life class, for the object of the student should be to acquire sufficient command over his materials and do whatever nature presents to him. The conventionalities of portrait painting are only tolerable in one who is a good painter. If he is only a good portrait painter, he is nobody. Try to become a painter first and then apply your knowledge to a special branch. But do not begin by learning what is required for a special branch or you will become a mannerist.
As a painter, I’ve spent a lifetime leaning my craft, studying the classic tradition of art, looking to the masters that spoke to me personally. Some painters say that too much traditional training inhibits spontaneity. I believe, if you lack the technical expertise there can be no spontaneity or anything else for that matter. Let me make an analogy. If you wish to perform musically, could you do so without a firm foundation in the basics of music and many years of study and practice on the instrument of your choice?
The arts, painting, sculpture, music and literature, embody the civility of man and express experience in terms impossible to describe in other ways, giving form to a range of feelings for which we have few words.
I’m an extremely fortunate man. I’ve been a romantic all my life and will continue to be until the day I die. Because of this, it’s difficult for me to recognize the unattractive in anyone or anything. It’s a blessed fact, that as long as I live, can see and think, I will continue to work. At an age when most men have retired, I’m just beginning to discover the real value of my art, with all the best years still ahead of me. I believe I can contribute profoundly to peoples lives through my portraits, giving them a joyous sense of living on through their children and their children’s children.
To be able to do what you love to do, for the rest of your life, and to have the feeling that your work is important enough to add something positive to this world, is a great gift . . . and I, for one, am very grateful.