Arshile Gorky (1904 – 1948) based this portrait of himself and his mother on a photograph taken in his native Armenia in 1912, when he was eight years old. Three years later, during the Ottoman Turk campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Armenians, Gorky, his mother and his younger sister all survived a death march. Tragically, his mother never recovered her health. She died in 1919 from starvation — one of the estimated one million to one and a half million victims of what is now widely referred to as the Armenian genocide. The following year, at the age of fifteen Gorky emigrated to the United States with his sister. As Gorky established his career as an artist, he became preoccupied with the photograph. The Artist and His Mother, made over the span of ten years (1926 – 1936) does not attempt to reproduce the camera’s image precisely, but instead reduces it to broad areas of muted, softly brushed color. The mask-like faces and undefined hands of the figures at once suggest their loss of physical connection and the difficulty of accessing memories over time.
Amedeo Modigliani (1884 – 1920) immortalized the Spanish landscape painter Manuel Humbert Esteve, a struggling artist whom he met in the ethnically diverse environment of Mantparnasse, in Portrait of Manuel Humbert (1916). In such paintings, he continued to question portraiture’s claim to truth, presenting the genre as ever-ambiguous. Here, he renders the sitter’s head as mask-like, with a narrow, triangular face and stylized arched brows connected to a thin. straight nose. He distinguishes personal features as well — pursed mouth, parted hair — constantly altering the counterpoise of individuality and formal abstraction.
Photographed in the Jewish Museum in NYC as part of the Exhibit Modigliani Unmasked, which is Up Through February 4th, 2018.
Amedeo Modigliani (1884 – 1920) met Jeanne Hébuterne in 1917, when she was 19 and a student in Paris. That same year, they moved into a studio and remained together until their deaths in 1920 (Hébuterne committed suicide the day after Modigliani died of tuberculosis). Hébuterne was the subject of more than 20 portraits that embody the artist’s signature depiction: a dramatically elongated figure with almond-shaped eyes and sensual but firmly closed lips. Hébuterne looks straight ahead, but her eyes are empty, as if caught in a reverie. African masks and early Sienese masters, as well as the concurrent styles of Constantin Brancusi and Pablo Picasso, influenced Modigliani’s work.
Jeanne Hébuterne with Yellow Sweater (1919) was photographed as part of the exhibit, Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in NYC.
In the 1920s, Charles Demuth (1883 – 1935) painted a remarkable series of “Poster Portraits” depicting friends and fellow artists. Rather than capturing a physical likeness, these works conveyed the subject’s character through arrangements of commonplace objects rendered in the crisp style of advertisements. While Demuth did not include a self-portrait in the series, My Egypt (1927), produced during the same period, suggests a parallel effort to distill his personal and artistic concerns in symbolic terms. This depiction of a newly built grain elevator in the artist’s native Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was the apex of his quest to develop a dynamic geometric style that would herald America’s industrial prowess. By titling the painting My Egypt, Demuth equates the grain elevator with the ancient pyramids, but he also invites a more poignant, intimate reading. When he made this work, Demuth was confined by debilitating illness to his home in Lancaster. Calling the image his Egypt links his hometown to the Biblical narrative of Egypt as a site of involuntary bondage.
Photographed in the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.
The “Work Reconsidered” in the title is John Wilde’s own drawing. This painting from 1950 is based on a “bridal” portrait that Wilde had made of his wife, Helen, in 1943. Its exacting realism and compressed perspective, as well as the subject’s pose and inscrutable expression, recall the Northern and Italian Renaissance portraits that inspired Wilde. He added surrealist details to these traditions: the butterflies on the woman’s body and head, the isolated food items on the table, and the moody landscape background create and otherworldly effect.
Allan D’Arcangelo’s portrait of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and her young daughter Caroline adopts the bold style of modern advertising, epitomized by the broad areas of bright, unmodulated color. The image trades on the Kennedy’s brand status and visual legibility: its sitters are recognizable merely by virtue of their signature hairstyles and clothing, as well as Jackie’s string of pearls. Made just months before President Kennedy’s assassination1963,Madonna and Child’s take on an age-old religious theme is at once optimistic and disquieting. With their bright halos and featureless faces, Jackie and Caroline appear as contemporary icons and saviors even as they are reduced to mute images for public consumption.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, an heiress to the Vanderbilt family fortune, was born into tremendous wealth and privilege. She defied social expectations however, by becoming a sculptor and the foremost patron of American art in the early twentieth century — activities which would ultimately lead her to found the Whitney Museum. Mrs. Whitney commissioned this portrait from Robert Henri (1965 – 1929), a close friend and leader of the urban realist painters known as the Ashcan School. Henri emphasized her unconventionality by depicting her reclining in pants and gazing at the viewer with a self-possessed assurance. Indeed, her husband refused to hang the painting in their uptown home, and she instead kept it in her Greenwich Village studio, which would become the first home of the Whitney Museum in 1931.