Portraiture: the ignored step-sister of Contemporary Art

The Old Masters all did portraits in oils as their bread and butter, but that isn’t the case with the big names in art today. Damien Hirst is immersed in formaldehyde, and the majority of great talents are swirling in the shapes of abstraction. Who is painting portraits today? By portrait, I mean the old-fashioned, limited definition that focuses on a human subject and depicts their likeness in oils on a canvas with a degree of verisimilitude.

The real question is, does anyone do that anymore? The photograph is many way has taken over the simpler aspect of portraiture, that is, to record a person’s appearance. I was struck by the amount of portraits in the Met’s exhibition Art and Love in the Renaissance Italy, and by how few I had seen by contemporary artists. That’s not to say portraiture is a dead art, but it is hardly a genre that gets a large amount of attention.

There are a few artists of note, however:

Closest to Tradition
Elizabeth Peyton does small, intimate portraits of friends and cultural icons much as the Old Masters would have, that is, with an eye to documenting what the person looks like. She focuses on portraiture, a rarity these days. A successful and well known artist, she is the only one whose oeuvre consists mainly of portraits.

Figurative Painters of Erotic Tendencies
John Currin
is well-known for his figurative paintings, albeit of a more erotic nature. Yet he documents people less and less as stylization’s based on cartoons and old masters like Lucas Cranach, and more like individuals. For example, see this portriat of Rachel Feinstein, his wife.

Lucien Freud‘s work tends to be less camp and more fleshy, but he too is known for his figurative paintings. Here we have a self-portrait on the left. This works is a portraits in the sense that it represents him, but most of his figures are anonymous pieces of flesh. Certainly, Freud is a capable portrait artist though.

Like a photograph, but not
Chuck Close made his reputation on photorealism and figurative painting. While it’s true the style below in this self-portrait is not one Rembrandt would have used, it doesn’t comprimise the viewer’s impression of what he looks like. His very large productions that recreate the pixellated effect of prints and photographs while focusing on a realistic face.

A dying style?
Obviously this is not an exhaustive survey of contemporary art. Please tell me if I’m missing something big.

Portraiture of the old style seems to be out of style. Take a look at Art Net’s 300 most searched artists and try to find another living artist on the list who does portraits. That’s not to say there are no longer artists for hire, should you want to commission a traditional portrait. It’s just that the people on this list aren’t on the top 300 of Art Nets.
I would have argued that interest in the individual was perinneal, but perhaps I’m wrong. Has traditional portraiture become irrelevant?

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