Artists Seeing Artists:
Portraits and Self-Portraits at St. John’s College
19th and 20th century artists from muscle men to sad souls; few women allowed.
Reviewed by Ben Miller
How would you describe yourself in a portrait? Would you make yourself pretty or handsome, intelligent or determined? Would you enhance your features, cut out some imperfections or emphasize a sadness you usually hide from view?
Like Norman Rockwell, famous for his Saturday Evening Post covers, would you eliminate your glasses, thicken your eyebrows and raise your pipe to a jaunty angle?
Would you make yourself a muscle man like illustrator Henry Winky? Would you surround yourself with symbols like Japanese artist Yasus Kuniyoshi?
At St. John’s College’s Elizabeth Myers Mitchell Gallery, you’ll see how these and other artists chose to describe themselves and other creative people in their art. The Artist Revealed: Artist Portraits and Self-Portraits, from the Syracuse University Art Collection, shows 51 biographical images, including photographs, drawings, painting and sculptures.
The Artist Revealed is thoughtfully presented and well organized. Labels and the accompanying brochure give context by introducing the lives and the careers of the artists.
Some self-portraits are searching. Photographer Edward Steichen is handsome and confident with a penetrating gaze. Artist Reginald Marsh is young, vigorous and alive. Artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi is brooding and sad.
There is also humor. Norman Rockwell is making some wry comments about himself, art and other artists.
There are some surprising portraits. Edward Steichen’s photograph of actor Charlie Chaplin taken in 1925 shows the confidence and success of a man at the height of his powers. Thomas Robert Way’s lithograph of artist James McNeill Whistler is photographic in its depiction of Whistler’s searching eyes. Barbara Morgan’s photograph of Ansel Adams shows a vigorous, youthful man unlike the photographs of the elder statesman of wilderness photography we are accustomed to seeing.
As curator David Prince explains, these are “examples of artists as actors choosing to show you what they want you to see.”
In both self-portraits and portraits, the artist chooses whether to be whimsical, complimentary or searing. A self-portrait can reveal self-mockery and self-awareness, as does Harry Wickey’s image of himself as a circus strong man in a loincloth.
You can also see the stages of man here, Prince says. Some of the subjects Charlie Chaplin, Reginald Marsh and the artist Whistler are young and confident in the warrior stage of life. Others are older and reflective: the artist Thomas Eakins shown in a photograph by Frederick Gutekunst, actor/singer Paul Robeson drawn by Time cover illustrator Boris Artybasheff; the sculpture of writer James Joyce by Milton Hebald.
“Stages of man” is an accurate description. Few women are represented. Among the portraying artists are photographers Barbara Morgan and Berenice Abbott, sculptor Brenda Putnam and painter Maria Wickey. The sole portrait of a woman is an etching by Edouard Manet of Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. This scarcity may speak more of the opportunities in art for women during the last two centuries than to bias in the collection.
The collection also represents people of the past, albeit our creative past. Next, I want to see the artists’ eye focused on people we read about and hear about every day.
Showing thru Oct. 21, at noon-5pm Tu-Su and 7-8pm F @ Mitchell Gallery, St. John’s College, Annapolis. Free: 410-626-2556, www.stjohnscollege.edu
Docent tours Noon-3pm each Th on the half hour; art educator Lucinda Edinberg presents a gallery talk 3pm Sept. 30 and 12:15-12:45pm Oct. 10.