1. Visual Arts

Review: Enthralling look at intimate art of portraiture at Museum of Fine Arts

“Contemplating Character” at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg showcases more than 150 works, which are divided into six themes ranging from self-portrait to fame.
“Contemplating Character” at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg showcases more than 150 works, which are divided into six themes ranging from self-portrait to fame.
Published Mar. 2, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — Is the art of observation a dying skill?

This question arose in my mind as I visited "Contemplating Character: Portrait Drawings and Oil Sketches From Jacques-Louis David to Lucian Freud" recently at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. Many fellow museumgoers had their phones in hand, looking at them a lot, and one man spent more time snapping pictures than looking at the exhibition face to art.

I have only personal, random information about the theory, but I will say that I actually enjoy waiting in airports because I love to people-watch. They don't seem to mind, and in fact they hardly notice because they're on their electronic devices.

This exhibition, though extending into this century, takes us back to a time before technology gave us the ability to look at people in indirect ways, and to record them directly and personally. Most are pre-20th century, when photography became a popular medium for the portrait. The 152 works are divided into seven themes: The Self-Portrait, Family and Friends, Fame, Portraits of Artists, Sitter as Subject, Drama and Imagination, and Repose and Endings.

Portraiture historically has been an interactive genre with a relationship established, however briefly, between the artist and sitter. The nature of the relationship is all over the place. We see this range in intimate portraits of artists' wives sleeping, a wrenching one of the dead child of an artist and those that are of personages in which a certain formality and distance are clear.

Among the largest groupings are self-portraits, and they are fascinating. The first one, Self-Portrait Accosted by Ghosts by contemporary Japanese artist Masami Teraoka, is anomalous because it is worked in the Japanese tradition of scroll painting. It's also one of the most energetic pieces with the artist in a state of surprise and fear seeing flying apparitions in his studio. This is probably unintentional on his part, but Teraoka's portrait reminded me slightly of those by the famous caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. (I half-expected to see Hirschfeld's signature "Nina" embedded in the drawing. )

Some are more penetrating than others. Among the most harrowing is an 1874 self-portrait by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Dying, in which his emaciated face, draw in graphite, seems in danger of fading away. Drawings being fragile, that fading is probably more a result of time rather than a purposefully ephemeral effect, but it's compelling.

The Sitter as Subject is the most poignant grouping because most of the sitters and some of the artists are anonymous. We gaze at Woman in a White Gown, c. 1832, for example. It's an interesting painting by an anonymous artist who creates facial features and shoulders and a torso that look as if two different artists painted them. The face is realistic; the rest of the body is in the style of an untrained itinerant painter who traveled from town to town seeking work. Below the neck, shoulders are simply sloping lines that become part of crudely drawn arms — it appears the painting wasn't completed — and the torso ends at the waist in a tiny V-shape. Someone cared enough about this woman to commission her portrait and the artist cared enough to try to make her lovely, but we'll never know who those someones are.

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Repose and Endings deals with two intimate forms of portraiture: capturing an image when the subject is sleeping and in death. The latter might seem morbid, even creepy, to our sensibilities but death portraits and facial casts have a long history in art. The portrait mentioned earlier of Jules Joseph Lefebvre's daughter Juliette, who died as a child in 1881, is a loving tribute. She is drawn in profile and the image is placed in a shadow box with a lock of her hair and dried flowers from her grave.

D.W. Briggs was memorialized in 1861 by an anonymous artist who surrounded the open casket with the tools he sold as owner of a hardware store. "In Loving Memory," the artist lettered on the work. As with Woman in a White Gown, this painting is a mix of verisimilitude and stylization: Mr. Briggs' legs are drawn as a V-shape (is that a coincidence?) narrowing to a small point that conforms to the unrealistic shape of the casket.

Repose refers to works of people who are sleeping, which requires a lot of trust on their part. (Will you be shown with your mouth open, drooling for the sake of art?) Lucian Freud and Dewitt Hardy are both respectful of their wives, though Hardy does include a glimpse of Mrs. Hardy's underwear. Freud's pen and ink seems so restrained compared to his well-known visceral style. Remember this drawing when you get to the Friends and Family section, which has a more unsparing portrait of Freud's mother.

In Drama and Imagination, works also run the emotional gamut. Robert Crumb's wife, Devil Woman, is drawn on a paper towel at a pizzeria with her tongue sticking out. More discreet is a 19 century Eye of the Beloved, a small painted eye set in precious stones that was a gift from an admirer to the beloved, worn as a brooch as a token of affection that was a secret.

César Ducornet makes several appearances in this show, as do other artists. The armless artist created a self-portrait and is represented in the section in which artists paint other artists. His, by Jean-Pierre Dantan,, shows him in the process of painting, using his feet and mouth, an actual work of his.

One of my favorites is an 1828 panel with nine silhouettes (black cutouts on white paper) of the English evangelist Charles Simeon by Augustin Amant Constant Fidéle Edouart. In them the fiery preacher is shown exhorting from the pulpit in a variety of gestures. Silhouettes are reductive, relying only on finely cut profiles and occasional cutouts, no drawing allowed. This group is superb.

But the artist? I never heard of him. Nor was I familiar with many others in this show. I Googled them and found for most at least a perfunctory entry. Edouart, by the way, was one of the most famous portrait artists of his generation. Still, you won't find him or most others in this show in general art history books.

In a way, that fact makes this collection more interesting. It is owned by Robert Flynn Johnson, curator emeritus, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. He is a learned man with a discerning eye and great experience in the art world who would know about these not-superstar artists. Only the 1 percent can afford the Picassos and van Goghs of the world and, while I'm sure Johnson, as a distinguished arts professional, lives a most comfortable life, I doubt he can afford one of Picasso's paintings of his mistress, Dora Maar — the most recent one sold went for more than $95 million in 2006.

So he does what most of us do: collect what he can afford, including Maar's self-portrait, which is in the show. It's a fine collection because he has sought out works by lesser-known (now, anyway) names, mostly drawings, and concentrated only on portraiture, giving it historical value in addition to artistic merit.

Facebook snaps are fine and can be useful, but digging deeper into a person can be transcendent.

Contact Lennie Bennett at or (727) 893-8293.


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