My last official portrait appears on my blog page. Seventy-three at the time, I knew I was old, but wasn’t prepared when the photographer pulled out a “soft” lens for the shoot. He said he’d take a few images with it. I might like them better. The proofs showed the difference between the regular and soft lens. The latter made me look twenty years younger. Unfortunately, it limited the number of pixels and made the copy fuzzy. What appears on my website is the unfiltered version.
Because photography is as flexible as the paint brush, and cheaper, it has almost done away with portrait paintings. Today, only the rich and famous sit for artistic renderings. Presidents and First Ladies have to pose for them, a tedious task which involves long hours of pretending to be a statue and ignoring an inconvenient itch.
Some funny stories have emerged about the struggle to between artists and models to control the image. Stavos Niachos, a Greek shipping magnet, hired Salvador Dali to paint his portrait. After a single sitting, he decided the project would take too much time and cancelled the commission. Infuriated, Dali took his revenge. He painted Niarchos’ face on the body of a naked lady and sold it for a handsome price to the magnet’s competitor, Aristotle Onassis. (The Portrait Speaks,” by Elizabeth Holmes, Town&Country, February 2018, pg. 129.)
Like the photographer who brought a soft lens to my sitting, the subject’s vanity is always in play. Some artists are willing to flatter. Others refuse, putting their vision above their obligation to their client. At the behest of his wife, Winston Churchill sat for a portrait for his 80th birthday. He didn’t want to do it and scowled the entire time. The artist painted what he saw. Churchill wasn’t happy with the result. Nor was his wife. After paying the man, she burned his work in the fireplace. (Ibid pg. 112)
Helena Rubenstein was said to have been particularly sensitive about her image. Understandable. She made her fortune as a maven in the cosmetic industry. At 82, a famous artist asked to paint her portrait. Flattered, she agreed, assuming there’d be “an understanding” between them. She assumed wrong and was horrified by the results. “I look so old…so savage…like a witch.” (Ibid pg. 122.) Once hung in the Tate Gallery, where it received critical acclaim, Rubinstein “came to appreciate it.” (Ibid pg. 112,)
Donald Trump has had his portrait painted. The subject’s approval was never in question. If Greek Gods roam the earth, our 45th President is among them.