Artful Musings: Portraiture

Most everyone is a people watcher. So it follows that most of us are interested in looking at portraiture. Portraits draw us in.

This child's painting of A Young Lady in a Hat (shown) is signed by Claire.* Who is Claire's young woman in the hat? She is youthful and has great big blue eyes. Notice the red white and blue bunting in the background. The three green horizontal stripes give the sense that she is outdoors. Could she be at a sporting event?

Graphically, it's a striking composition. Simple color blocked shapes are arranged in such balance.

Look at portraits with curiosity. Note significant features in the painting. The story about the person being portrayed is told by those details.


Natalya Swanson, Family Portrait, 2014

Portraits are often filled with identifiable symbols. Some are very obvious as to what they represent, such as a halo which much of western portraiture uses to signify holiness. A rose is associated with love and a pearl is known to symbolize purity. Color palette is also a powerful visual clue as to who is being portrayed. A high keyed, vibrant palette evokes a different emotion than that which is muted or dark in value.

Symbolism abounds in Family Portrait (shown) by Natalya Swanson. Its title is an obvious clue – this is a family. Their black female dog lies below them. The dog, in western portraiture, is commonly used to represent marriage, faithfulness and fidelity. The idea that this is a portrait of a married couple (obviously childless) is reinforced.

Of course, the portrait is meant to be ironic. Everyone depicted has a halo, including the dog who lies on a pink cloud with sunrays radiating from her head. She looks at us while the two figures look at her, reminiscent of Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus.

Alice Neel, Vivienne Wechter, 1965

I know very little about Vivienne Thaul-Wechter except that she was a painter and art advocate in New York during the last half of the last century. When she died at age 91 in 2001 she had still been working as a professor and artist-in-residence at Fordham University.

I gather from this painting that Vivienne had a lot of energy and great style. She is definitely a woman in the prime of life. She sits forward with an open smile. Her hands are active and her bracelets seem to clink. Her eyes are lively, her demeanor one of intelligence. The white scarf wrapped around her dark hair adds great flare and sets off her dark curls and black dress. I would love to have had a conversation with the classy Vivienne Wechter.

Alice Neel was a master colorist. She knew how to put paint on a canvas! And, boy, she could really see people!

Dianne Davis, Polly Pickering, 2015

Polly Pickering is someone's little darling. Her parents have dressed her in the height of fashion, complete with huge bow and enormously puffy sleeves. She poses in a studio setting typical of that of a portrait photographer's during the 1910s.

I kept the colors in this portrait as close to the sepia tones of an old photograph as I could without it being totally monochromatic.

There is something oppressive about old studio photographs of children from around the 1910s and I wanted to capture that feeling in this painting. Children in these portraits rarely seem capable of having fun. The same with Polly, who meets the viewer's eye as she sits with stiff posture, not very comfortably in her chair.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Study for Portrait of King Henry VIII, 1885

At the start of his reign, Henry VIII was a golden king. Youthful and fit, he was the model of chivalric valor. As he grew older, his voracious appetite resulted in a body that grew fatter and more bloated. After a serious jousting accident during his middle years, many say his brain was affected and his behavior became abusive and tyrannical. He also began to suffer with ulcerated lesions on his legs and grew more and more obese.

In this portrait, Henry is an aging king. His weight gain shows in his swollen face, his eyelids are puffed and beginning to sag. His mouth is tight. He does not make eye contact. His expression is closed.

Holbein's drawings are like photographic representations, detailed and nuanced. I think his drawn studies are much more interesting to look at than are the final paintings, as wonderful as those paintings are.

Thanks to this drawn portrait, we can all say we know what fat old King Henry the VIII looked like.

Dirty Lola, Wednesday Addams

This portrait of Charles Addams's Gothic character, Wednesday Addams, is laden with symbolism!


Sparrow: Bonding, undying love and commitment

Hummingbird: Wonder, beauty, endurance, Mexican symbol of good luck

Monkey: Chinese symbol of cleverness, Mexican symbol of the devil, Mayan held monkey up as a patron of the arts

Dog: Guidance, loyalty, fidelity and faithfulness

Cat: Seduction, bad luck, evil (Middle Ages); in Renaissance art the cat represents scholarship, in dutch art, laziness and bliss

Skull: Death and the devil; sometimes symbol of wisdom, immortality, and strength

Butterfly: Change and transformation, Eastern symbol of enlightenment

Sparrow: Undying love and commitment, bonding

Pineapple: Welcome

Egg: Birth, new life, and fertility, Christian symbol of life and resurrection


Red: Anger, passion and love; intense heat and blood; symbolizes celebration and good luck in Chinese culture

Yellow Often associated with hopefulness, sunshine, life; in France, jealousy and weakness. Used in Africa to indicate prosperity and success

Blue: Calmness, coolness; often represents Heaven and purity; in Eastern culture, immortality

Black: Death, mystery, mourning; in China, prosperity and health

White: Purity; in Eastern culture, death

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