Society Portraits

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Watching the passing parade. Photo: JH.

When I was a teen-ager, I had a girlfriend whose mother was heiress to the richest man in town. They lived in a big house, had a uniformed maid, a cook, and one day, even a French painter, a man who was introduced as Monsieur Sasportas, who’d come to stay for a few weeks to paint the portrait of Madame.

Sir Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of the Hon. Frances Duncombe, c. 1777. New York. The Frick Collection.

Mrs. Russell was a striking looking woman in memory. The face was broad and large but the expression was taut so that she could look cold. In memory, she was a very nice woman. When I was a very young boy, I was once told by my piano teacher who loved to gossip that Mrs. Russell could often be found in the sanctuary of the local Episcopal Church collapsed in prayer, crying her eyes out — over the infidelities of her husband.

My piano teacher didn’t use the word “infidelities” on this 10 year old. I can’t remember the word(s) she used, but I got the picture. And as you can see it’s stayed with me for my entire life. As has Mrs. Russell’s portrait (Russell was her second husband, she having eventually divorced the first husband over whom she used to cry her eyes out).

First of all, M,. Sasportas was very old to these young eyes. He spoke English very slowly, almost mumbling with his French accent. When he smoked a cigarette, he always held it at the very center of his lips. Which I then determined to be the French style for cigarette smoking. He was not very tall but roundish.

My friend whose mother was having her portrait painted, used to mock him by putting him on. We all thought that was funny, because it was embarrassing. In retrospect, he must have thought we were all silly bores because we were.

Cover portrait by Giovanni Boldini of Consuelo Vanderbilt, the duchess of Marlborough with her son Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill, 1906. New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It was in 1906 that the Duchess of Marlborough, nee Consuelo Vanderbilt, came to sit for Boldini in his Paris studio. After painting an initial head and shoulders likeness, Boldini embarked on this imposing full length study depicting the young duchess (she was 29) with her appealing eight year old son, Lord Ivor. The unusual pose immediately attracted considerable attention. In defiance of convention, the boy is shown curled up against his mother twisting his hands in her lap, burying his face in her elegant décolletage and pressing his body against hers in a sub-Freudian image of filial adoration.

Mrs. Russell’s final portrait, however, was quite impressive to these first-time-seeing-a portrait eyes. It was hung in the large living room. There was no portrait of her husband. It was impressive because Mrs. Russell looked regal. She looked like a “rich” woman, a woman of independent means and therefore an independent woman, and therefore … regal. The tautness in her face was softened, and she was prettier. She was seated, in a blue dress with a blue background. It was dramatic; the whole notion.

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II, 1912. Private Collection.
Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, proprietors of the largest sugar refining business in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, owned a residence in Vienna as well as a castle outside Prague. Their porcelain collection was the finest and most valuable in Vienna. Ferdinand Bloch already owned  several works by Klimt when he commissioned the artist to paint two portraits of his wife, dubbed the “Austrian Mona Lisa,” who died in the prime of life, aged twenty-five. The first of these is a masterpiece of his gold style and an icon of the Neue Galerie (in New York). The two portraits were among five paintings looted from the Bloch-Bauer family by the Nazis in World War II. After a lengthy legal process that ended in 2006, they were restored to Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer’s heiress.

I wouldn’t be surprised if I thought quite differently about the portrait by M. Sasportas today. I wonder if it was as good as it seemed to this one who had never seen a portrait of a person in my sphere. Perhaps it was, and perhaps it wasn’t.

Because so much contemporary classic portrait looks cookie cutter and merely portrays an almost photographic likeness of the subject who is otherwise uninteresting to look at. John Singer Sargent was never uninteresting to look at.

In the unremitting process of editing my collection of books, I came across Gabriel Badea-Päun’s The Society Portrait; from Warhol to David (Vendome, 2007), which explains the above most succinctly. I was distracted for hours poring through its pages and for me, who knows very little about Art History, it was informative, evocative, intriguing, fascinating and beautiful to look at. And I didn’t even know I had this book on my shelves!

Portraiture as we know it today never got started until about the 15th century. Only the Popes and the Kings (and Queens) got to have their portraits painted. And naturally they were painted to make them look good and grand. By the 18th century the portrait became an artist’s bread and butter in vanity fair.

As society absorbed new members of wealth, the society portrait grew in stature and popularity. The motivation was then as it is today: vanity on the part of the sitter and business on the part of the painter.

Badua-Paum’s historical review of the genre is also a social (and economic) document, and it’s not only filled with art history but also some of the histories of the sitters down through the centuries.

These are irresistible because they bring the sitter to you while contemplating his or her portrait.

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