Masterpieces

Paintings and Graphic Arts  

Portraits

Portraitists were the first American artists to enjoy international prominence. Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley, among other colonial artists, worked successfully as portraitists in France and England. Stuart’s Portrait of Mrs. James Arden displays his mastery of the conventions of the 18th century society portrait. The sensitive treatment of the sitters face, the loose, fluid quality of the brushstrokes and the romantic softness of the background present the sitter as a woman of sensibility and taste.

19th century American portraitists also achieved international acclaim. As American artists began to receive artistic training abroad, they began to paint in a variety of Continentally influenced styles rather than simply attempting to reproduce the manner of English portraiture. George Peter Alexander Healy worked primarily as a portraitist. He is represented in French collections by 39 portraits of American presidents and diplomats, including the iconic, posthumously executed George Washington, first president of the United States of America. While the cosmopolitan Healy was educated in Paris and Rome, his contemporary George Catlin was essentially self-taught. However, he also became internationally noted for his portraits of American Indians done in a simple, linear style such as the 1846 Portrait of Shon-ta-ye-ga (Little Wolf).

In the later 19th century, a new era of American portraiture was influenced by the rise of the Impressionist school. James Abbott MacNeill Whistler’s most enduringly famous image is an 1871 portrait of his mother, the ironically titled: Arrangement in gray in black, n°1, or The Mother of the Artist, Anna Matilda MacNeill. Mary Cassatt’s portraits of women and children were influenced by the delicate color and line of Japanese prints. John Singer Sargent, recognized as one of the most technically dazzling portraitists of his time, painted masterpieces of bravura brushwork and keen psychological intuition. The national French collections include conventional bust-length Sargent works such as his Portrait of Rodin as well as outdoor portrait studies, notably the 1883 Portrait of Judith Gautier with its strikingly modern, open composition and its dazzling swath of spring green.

American portraiture of the early 20th century was influenced by newly popular theories of psychoanalysis and the unconscious. Artists such as Paul Haviland Burty and Henry Goetz produced portraits that drew upon the visual vocabularies of new styles like Cubism and Surrealism to reveal their sitters’ characters. In Romaine Brooks’ 1912 Portrait of Jean Cocteau by the Great Wheel, the looming Ferris Wheel in the background seems to be more an emblem than a simple compositional element. Brooks’ painting reveals the future direction of 20th century portraiture by finding new ways to address the subject’s interior.