Westmoreland Museum of American Art

Greensburg, Pennsylvania




Face-to-Face: 20th Century Portraits


"Face-to-Face: 20h Century Portraits," an exhibition organized by the Westmoreland Museum of American Art (WMAA), runs through October 22, 2000, and explores the evolution of portrait styles utilized by artists throughout the twentieth century. The forty American artists included in the exhibition, such as John Sloan, Elaine de Kooning, Alice Neel, Robert Henri Chuck Close, and George Bellows, were selected based on how their unique approach to portraiture highlights the evolution of this beloved art form. Beginning with the more formal academic approach by George Bellows and Berhard Gutmann, visitors will also be presented with modern, more abstract portraits by artists such as Alfred Henry Maurer and Andy Warhol Various themes included in the exhibition consist of self-portraits by John Sloan and Mary Feist; portraits that scrutinize the sitter and not necessarily flattering (Alice Neel); how artists see each other (Elaine de Kooning and John Sloan); and portraits revealing popular sub-culture such as Mark Perrott's portraits of individuals with tattoos. (left: Mary Regensburg Feist, Self Portrait with Flowered Hat, 1937)

"The subject of portraiture has always been popular with museum visitors. We hope to challenge and broaden our audience's idea of what a portrait is by presenting this look at one hundred years of a single subject area," states Judith H. O'Toole, WMAA Director and CEO. (left: Elaine De Kooning, Aristodemos Kaldis, 1978, Courtesy of Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, New York)

To complement the Face-to-Face exhibition, also on view at the WMAA, will be an exhibition of photographic portraits by Lee Hershenson. This Pittsburgh photographer reveals the psychology of his subjects in forceful and uncompromising portraits of both men and women ranging in age from 50 to 103. (right: Lee Hershenson. L. C., 24 x 20 inches)


The Significance of 20th Century Portraits

What is a portrait? By definition, it is a painting, photograph, or other likeness of a person; especially one showing the face. It can also be a verbal picture or description, especially of a person. The artist, by means of capturing the image of a person on canvas or in a photograph, provides that sitter with a measure of mortality.

In 1914, George Bellows was commissioned by the Harvard Club of New York to paint a portrait of Judge Peter Olney (1843 - 1922). The full-length portrait was placed in the Harvard Club in 1914 but the sitter rejected it and had it withdrawn because he thought the color (the aquamarine background) "too modern." Bellows color choice reflects his exposure to the modern European paintings he saw at the Armory Show in 1913. After seeing work by such artists as Gauguin, Matisse, and the Fauves, he became more daring with his color and experimented with pure hues in vibrant combinations. Bellows' expressive brush strokes and dramatic light, focused on the Judge's face and hands, describe this serious man who had the power to make life and death decisions. (left: George Bellows, Judge Peter Olney, Courtesy of Berry-Hill Galleries, New York)

In the middle of the twentieth century, artists moved away from the notion that the careful rendering of facial features was the most desirable aspect of a portrait, or that it described the subject most accurately. In Elaine De Kooning's work we see this modernist approach. Throughout most of her career, she devoted much of her artistic energy to the portrayal of individuals. Her imposing life-size portrait of her friend, fellow artist Aristodemos Kaldis with his own paintings behind him, reflects his dominant personality and vital energy. Those who knew him said that Elaine portrayed him "to the life." De Kooning was committed to subjective portraiture and became very involved with her sitters. She took into consideration their mood, attitude and body language over a period of time and during differing circumstances to arrive at an image that was most suitable to their individuality.

For as long as artists have been painting portraits of people they have been using them as vehicles for psychological examination. With the dynamic pose and linearity of his elongated and lithe body, Alice Neel, in her portrait Ballet Dancer, of 1950, communicates immediately to the viewer that this man is indeed a dancer.

Since the 17th century, artists have been painting themselves as readily available expressive models when no others existed or could be afforded. The self portraits in this exhibition by John Sloan, Elaine DeKooning, Mary Feist, James Lechay, Karl Schrag, Will Barnett, Thomas Hart Benton, and Harold Weston all represent the unique way these artist's saw themselves and the many stylistic approaches they chose to interpret their individual personalities.

Read more about the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Resource Library Magazine

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 3/23/11

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