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Indepth Arts News:

"Portraiture: Identity"
2005-12-05 until 2005-12-23
University of Virginia Art Museum
Charlottesville, VA, USA

Portraiture would seem to be one of the most unambiguous forms of representation. At its most basic level, a portrait is a likeness of an actual person, living or dead. Beyond this simple definition, however, there lies a vast range of possibilities within the practice of portraiture. The University of Virginia Art Museum exhibition "Portraiture: Identity" features a selection of paintings, prints and photographs from the collection displaying the variety of forms, meanings, conventions and uses of the portrait with particular emphasis on the complex relationship of portraiture to the identities of its sitters.

Anne Lauinger, Museum-McIntire Graduate Fellow, curated the exhibition.

Our 21st century notion of identity is as multifaceted as the world that shapes it: "identity" encompasses the unique blend of character, gender, race, sexual orientation and values that defines and distinguishes each person from another. Such a vigorous definition did not begin to emerge until the 17th century when the idea of the self became a matter of philosophical inquiry, and since then, the definition of identity has grown and changed, constantly mutating and expanding. Because of this, the art of the portrait has enjoyed an ever-changing role in society - for artists, clients and all who view them. With time, the focus of portraiture has become increasingly psychological, and the revelation of the sitter's personality ever more intense. In its closeness to the workings of identity, portraiture accomplishes a seemingly impossible feat - a portrait has the strange ability to fuse the external appearance of a sitter with his or her inner self, marking the body as the meeting point of life and thought.

The exhibition explores three categories of portraiture: For formally commissioned portraits, the artist often relies on pose, dress, attributes and setting to present the social identity, public persona and virtuosity of a sitter, as in John Singleton Copley's charming portrait of "Miss Rhoda Cranston."

Private portraits of friends and family allow the artist to work within the genre of portraiture in a casual manner. The faces they depict are ones they see every day, ones they know well, and these portraits are often imbued with a deep sense of the sitter's personality. James McNeill Whistler's etching, "Seymour, Seated," is a serene, unassuming portrait that serves as a token of the artist's relationship with his nephew and a reminder of the boy in his youth. 

The third category, modernist portraits, is grouped largely on the basis of their shared resistance to classification. The portraits by Shelby Lee Adams and Darrel Ellis have little in common stylistically, yet the artistic aims are similar - both artists recognize portraiture's connection of image and identity. In their work, they undermine this relationship, creating portraits that offer little information about the sitter, as in Adams' portrait of "Coy Adams," or conversely by refusing to give a likeness, like Ellis' portrait "Laure." The modernist portraits also include William Bailey's "Portrait of S" where there is in fact no model for the portrait - allowing Bailey to point to the degree of artifice he sees inherently present in every painting and to question the ability of a portrait to communicate a true sense of a person's identity.

As well as the differences in motivations behind portraitures, the collection also highlights several distinct mediums of portraits including Pablo Picasso's etchings "Le Repas Frugal" ("The Frugal Meal") and "La Suite des Saltimbanques," the prints of photographers Diane Arbus ("Lady Bartender at Home with Souvenir Dog") and Brassaļ ("La Fille au billiard russe"), and George Luk's untitled oil on board.

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