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Long before selfies, portraits were a way for those who could afford it to help shape their public image.


We humans, it would seem, are pre-programmed to recognize faces in everything. And with good reason: faces communicate. Being able to tell the difference between a friend and a stranger, and the difference between an angry friend and a happy friend, is vital information. And unless you’re a poker player, there’s a good chance your face will give you away. But a painting of your face, a portrait, can hide a multitude of sins. Kim Sajet is the director of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, where the accomplishments of America’s best and brightest are immortalized in paint, on video, and sculpture. Kim Sajet says that a portrait is about more than its subject, it’s actually more like a three-legged stool.

Kim Sajet: So you have on one leg, you have the sitter. Which, if you’re a president or a celebrity or a certain person, you want to try and manipulate that situation and make yourself look as good as possible, right? The other is the artist. And as we know there’s been battle royals with artists who would like to have their own identity also come through, they have their own opinion about the person that they’re painting, and their own way of creating that image.

AJC: Well the other argument, is that every portrait’s a self portrait.

Sajet: Exactly. And then of course then, in fact, if we were gonna bring psychology into it, we could also make the argument that every portrait is as current as it is at the moment. Because the third leg of the stool is the person who’s watching it, the audience. And depending on how they feel about George Washington, or how they feel about the artist, or how they feel about abstraction or collage, that will determine how they feel about that person.

Though the paintings in the National Portrait Gallery celebrate individual achievement, historically the purpose of the private commissioning or portraits was a fairly straightforward show of wealth and influence.

Sajet: A portrait is an economic drain.

AJC: It’s a folly.

Sajet: It’s a folly, right. It’s not gonna help me. But what it is saying is “I can afford to get a portrait of my children or my wife.” It is very much used as a sort of an entree, and to say not only that, “I can get John Singer Sargent to do my portrait, or Copley.”

Or maybe Maria Teicher, an artist who’s both adding to and co-opting from the legacy of the form, with her style as well as her choice of subjects.

Maria Teicher: Portraiture elevates people. So it’s like wanting to elevate me as an underdog and my friends and family.  And also like forever capture them in this very like historically traditional medium, what was only for kings and queens, and you know royalty and great mythological stories. It’s like, “No my friends and family are important too.” It’s like almost like I have to inject my own little rebellion into this history that I’m a part of. That, “No, I belong here, I’m trying to get at something a little bit different.”

AJC: But are you being self-consciously rebellious or is it just “I have to do this?”

Teicher: I think it’s about what we were talking about earlier, it’s honesty. I think it’s like I can’t lie to myself. I chose to be a painter, right. Nobody shoved the paintbrush in my hand. So, if I’m gonna do that I should do it with my whole being.

Alexandra Tyng is one of an elite group of living portraitists whose work hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Her depiction of her father, the noted 20th century architect, Louis I. Kahn, entered the collection in 2010.

Alexandra Tyng: I think that sometimes knowing the person well makes it harder to grasp that essence in one portrait. And I find myself painting them over and over again, trying to get their essence. And I’m never satisfied.

But even as getting the essence of someone close may be difficult, for Maria Teicher it was a necessary exercise.

Teicher: I painted my one best friend so many times, that people recognize her at all my openings now. And I think that’s what helped it. She trusted me immediately, so I just painted her over and over again until other people began to trust me that way. And now my work makes people trust me.

But no matter how close an artist may come to capturing their subject’s essence, Kim Sajet believes that a portrait should never be taken literally.

Sajet: Portraiture, I like to quote Picasso, “is a lie that illustrates the truth.” This idea, that no portrait is actually going to tell you about the person in the portrait and indeed, this is one of the reasons we have 1600 portraits of the American presidents. For example, you have five Clintons, because each moment when a portrait is taken it changes.

But as subjects themselves change, they may not want every detail documented, often hoping for a better version of themselves.

Tyng: People do come in, and they say, “You know, can you take off a few pounds, or can you put on a little more hair.” And those things I can do. You can soften wrinkles, and actually I do, because I think for me it’s not the amount of detail I put in, it’s the essence, you know, that I’m trying to capture. And all those little extra wrinkles are not really part of the essence of the person.

Teicher: It’s really important to me to include laugh lines, and crow’s feet, and things that are developing on our skin, and to get the anatomy of a person right. Because that shows who they really are, that shows what their parents look like, maybe their grandparents look like. The only thing I don’t like to put in there is people’s pimples and people’s pores. I feel like when you look at somebody you don’t see their pores, and that pimple will be gone in a day or two, so those things I completely eliminate. Everything else kinda stays there.

Tyng: If someone else is painting your portrait, you’re kind of leaving yourself a little bit in their hands. I mean, you can say you like it or not, but you’re choosing to have somebody else interpret you. So you have to trust them a little bit.

Teicher: The subject-artist relationship I think is it can be, or it should be, a really special one. I want that person to be able to open up to me. If they’re rigid then I paint something that’s rigid, and that’s not who they really are.

But surely, we ourselves are most qualified to show who we really are. But is a selfie a self portrait?

Sajet: I don’t think a selfie is a portrait.

AJC: No?

Sajet: I think it can be. But I think in the whole it isn’t.

Teicher: Is a portrait just a picture of a face, or is there so much more to it?

AJC: You’re the artist, you tell me.

Teicher: Yeah, for me there’s a lot more to it. For me, there’s a very big difference between a selfie and self portrait. There’s a difference between a—”I look good today, and I want to document that”, versus something that’s fully set up and fully realized, and takes months to paint, or even it takes the knowledge of a camera to be able to take that with a remote control.

Sajet: I think of selfies as souvenirs, I think of them as extremely narcissistic in many ways. I think at the point where you then really start playing around, particularly with filters, you start taking multiple shots, you might go back home and you know there’s all this software to make yourself look better. Then I do think you’re starting to get into that artistic sphere where you are creating a portrait. So, I’m not saying all selfies are not portraits, I’m just saying only a few of them are.

But lest we forget, photography is itself a fine art. And Maria Teicher believes it’s an equally valuable mode of expression.

Teicher: It’s about bringing your experiences before you pick up the camera into it. I think it’s about learning the people that you’re photographing, whether you’re intent is to keep it as a photograph or turn it into a painting. I think those are really important. It’s about the artist’s personal history before they pick up their tool.

Though Teicher is confident enough with a camera to paint from her own photographs, Alexandra Tyng is more faithful to tradition.

Tyng: The color in a portrait, if you’re doing it from life, is so much better than a photograph. And the three dimensionality is there. You know, you feel around the edges when you’re painting something from a person from life. You’re not just painting a flat thing. Even though I’m looking for momentary fleeting expressions and gestures, there’s gotta be something in that portrait that is timeless.

So whether honoring those who have contributed to our national identity, or simply those who have touched us personally, portraits are a powerful attempt to capture the human spirit.