This exercise asks for a personal memorandum for the commissioning of a portrait. The subject can be any person in history and possible portraitists likewise.
I would like a portrait of my mother. This photo was taken at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) a couple of years ago, and in the background is Ben Quilty’s portrait of Margaret Olley which has been mentioned in a couple of posts recently. I would like to celebrate mum and her life, and I think she would find the experience of having her portrait painted interesting and enjoyable, although possibly uncomfortable on a number of levels.
My first choice of possible portraitists would be Grace Cossington Smith (reiterating that there are no restrictions of space or time in the exercise).To give a general idea of her work I’ve included thumbnails from some paintings at AGNSW – see www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/
collection/works/OA18.1960/ and www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au
/collection/works/OA11.1967/. Although less common in her work, examples of portraits are Portrait of Mrs McGann (1944 http://www.charlesnodrumgallery.com.au/artwork.asp?id=43383) and Self portrait (1948 http://www.portrait.gov.au/site/collection_info.php?&irn=460&acno=2002.65). Grace Cossington Smith painted some of mum’s favourite works. There is also a slight personal connection – Cossington Smith lived in Turramurra and worshiped at St James’ Anglican Church, whose interior she painted a number of times. For years members of my family have rung the bells at St James, and when mum was spearheading the drive to raise funds for additional bells Cossington Smith gave her a sizeable donation. Finally I am attracted to Cossington Smith’s use of colour and light to describe form, the deep affection shown in her portraits and sketches of family, and the sense of space, peace and home in her interiors.
For this exercise I don’t suppose I should stop with a short list of one, although I think the fit of subject and painter is very good. Another choice could be Jenny Sages. There are a lot of images and a lot of information about Sages on the National Portrait Gallery website, including a video at http://www.portrait.gov.au/site/exhibition_subsite_jenny_2.php. Sages portraits are about relationships, making connections. She has to know the person, care about them, have rapport with them. In the video Sales talks about her relationship with her mother, which also drew me to her. Like my mother Sages was born elsewhere and has developed a relationship with this land. Sages has painted strong women, courageous and brave women, and I think she could show the strength and courage I see in my mother.
The portrait is intended for a domestic setting, so should not be larger than around 125 cm in height or width. It should be suitable to hang on a wall. Those are really the only absolutes. Oil on canvas on board is suggested, or the pigment and encaustic wax Sages often uses.
I have chosen artists who work with connections and relationships. The only potential sticking point to accepting the final work would be if a rapport and mutual respect did not develop between sitter and painter. I also believe it’s important to be able to trust the artist in their judgement of what makes a good picture. While my notes below suggest a possible focus and items that could be included, they are a starting point not a shopping list. The work should develop in the relationship.
Like all of us mum is a complex person with different aspects of her personality more apparent at different times. I would like the portrait to focus on her loves of travel, people, and history. I’m very fond of the story that as a young woman in the early 1950s, coming from a very conservative family, she spent her first pay cheque on a suitcase. She has been expedition cook on a dig in western NSW and general helper on a dig in Turkmenistan. For her 70th birthday she wanted to walk on the Great Wall of China and to visit a series of historical and archaeological sites not on a standard tour route – so she organised her own tour and gathered her own group. That zest for life and exploration and openness to adventure is still very apparent in today’s woman of 85. My idea for the portrait is of mum sitting comfortably in her home, surrounded by “treasures” (emotional, not necessarily monetary value) that connect her to places and people from the past. At the same time she should look ready to get up and launch into her next travels.
- Maps – mum has a large collection of old maps
- Some antique furniture handed down through the family, including this corner cabinet filled with curiosities
- A sampler stitched by a great, great aunt
- A small rug she commissioned when travelling in Turkey
- textiles and nick nacks picked up from here, there and everywhere.
In the past few years mum and I have stood on the beaches of Flinders Island off Tasmania, walked through the tree canopy in Western Australia and gazed out across Fogg Dam in the Northern Territory. I would like a portrait that celebrates her spirit and that wide streak of stubborn.
UA1-WA:P4-p2-Exercise: Commission a portrait
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Part 4: Portraiture and figure painting
Project two: The artist’s self-portrait portrait
Exercise: Commission a portrait