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Fine Art Connoisseur, May-June 2017


Fine Art Connoisseur
May/June 2017

"Consequence of Affection: 75 Years of Portraits, Inc.
by Michael Gormley

No matter how much she tried to ignore it, the unease seeped in like a cold damp. She closed her eyes and, for the third straight day, pushed aside the seemingly inconsequential task at hand -- organizing her gallery's autumn season. "What's the use?" she murmured in seeming defeat -- she being a highly regarded businesswoman, and one of New York City's great doyennes. "How," she wondered, "can I possibly get anyone excited about acquiring a pair of rare 18th-century Venetian wall sconces?" It was the summer of 1941, and the news from Europe, though heavily propagandized, was a worrisome distraction. She thought to turn on the radio, but knew its broadcast would just raise her anxiety, so instead she dialed up her best friend, Helen Read.
        Helen wasn't having the best day, either, and she quickly grew impatient with her friend's laments over the state of the world and its impact on her enterprise. “For heaven’s sake, Lois,” she snapped, “young people are dying. Get involved and stop with the fretting. Have you thought about how you can help? And I don’t mean writing another check. I have been volunteering at USO events downtown. Why don’t you join me next time I go?” “Do they not host events up here?” Lois replied dryly, now defensive and taken aback by her friend’s rude lack of sympathy. Helen ignored the bait. She knew that Lois Shaw rarely ventured beyond her rarefied Upper East Side neighborhood — save for Wednesday matinees — and that she looked askance at the jaunts to Greenwich Village studios that other society matrons enjoyed.
       “I don’t think so,” countered Helen. “But why don’t you call the USO and ask?” “Oh, I shall,” quipped Lois as she hung up the phone. Never one to pass up an opportunity to prove another wrong, she did one better. Years later, Lois recalled: “I offered my gallery to the USO as a meeting place. If there’s one thing I knew how to do, it was entertain. Actually, it was Helen’s idea to invite a few of her downtown artist friends. I was appalled. Apparently, they were all drawing portraits on the street for extra money; she showed me a few that she had sat for. I had to admit that they were all quite good and I was finally convinced that it would be fun to have the artists draw the servicemen and -women and give the portraits to their families and loved ones as parting gifts. We matted them, and the families were so heartened and grateful. I hadn’t expected this kind of response. But of course, these young people were going overseas. Who knew when or if they would be seen again? How could I have been in such a bubble? Anyway, I may not be perfect, and I’m certainly not the best at spotting when I am wrong and someone else is right — but there was no denying how vital these portraits were to keeping people’s spirits up. Helen and I kept hosting those portrait parties throughout the war.”


        Shaw’s USO parties won her a special citation from the U.S. government, but perhaps more importantly, they opened her eyes to the potential of portraiture — then an art form considered sorely out of step with the modern world. Yet Shaw knew what she liked, and she never allowed herself to be swayed by passing fancies masked as unassailable truths by supposed experts. Moreover, the parties had allowed Lois’s naturally engaging personality and aesthetic sensibility to blossom. Secure in her role as one of the city’s leading hostesses and hence a lady to be looked to on matters of good taste, Lois Shaw set out to re-establish portraiture as a higher-order expression embodying the classical ideals and humanist yearnings of Western culture.
        There being no firm in New York City focused exclusively on portraiture, Shaw decided to set aside a room in her gallery (which otherwise showcased chic ensembles of fine art and antiques) to exhibit portraits. She announced a new service called the Portrait Painters’ Clearing House to secure commissions for the artists she began to represent. The potential for financial and critical success emboldened Shaw to convince Helen Read to join her in founding a gallery devoted entirely to representing portraitists; it was exactly 75 years ago, in 1942, that Portraits, Inc., was officially launched. They mounted a series of well-received benefit exhibitions, including Portraits of Warriors, Family Portraits of New Yorkers, and Portraits of Personalities, which aimed to re-situate portraiture within the greater fine art culture while garnering press attention and patronage. By 1947, their gallery had created sufficient buzz to warrant a feature article in The New Yorker. Titled “Consequence of Affection,” it began:

People interested in having their own or someone else’s portrait painted are likely to show up at the flourishing and exceedingly genteel enterprise known as Portraits, Inc., which occupies a gal-lery at 460 Park Avenue so suavely furnished with fine old French pieces and so deftly baited with samples of the work of the artists for whom the gallery acts as agent as to induce in a prospective sub-ject the conviction that the commissioning of a heroic three-quar-ter-length likeness is a most urgent matter…

         Eventually growing the stable to represent more than 60 well-known painters, including Sidney Dickinson, Guy Pène du Bois, and Henriette Wyeth, Shaw and Reed continued curating themed exhibitions, including a successful show featuring the Wyeth family mounted soon after the 1945 passing of their patriarch, N.C. Wyeth. In tandem with the commissions, these curatorial efforts effectively aligned portraiture with contemporary art and thereby restored the genre to its proper place in the hierarchy of fine art.


         When new clients visited the gallery, Read’s introduction always included the company motto: “Portrait painting is a reasonable and natural consequence of affection.” From the outset, then, college presidents and children were the most likely sitters, by far, followed closely by bankers and corporate executives. The latter market, Shaw realized, was “a natural consequence of portraits of board chairmen for the directors’ room being a deductible business expense.”
        Early on, Shaw and Read decided to focus on American portraitists — stemming from the country’s isolationist political climate and from their aesthetic preference for bold, painterly works representing America’s unique juxtaposition of regional and modernist impulses. Shaw was always searching for fresh talent: “[G]ood portrait artists are hard to find,” she said, “because up to a few years ago, portrait painting was looked down upon as a corrupt branch of art in which the artist was forced to do nothing but slick flattering likenesses of his subject... People have since learned not to expect that sort of prettiness, or anyhow, less of it.”
One such talented newcomer was the young painter Everett Raymond Kinstler (b. 1926). Commenting on his 60-year affiliation, Kinstler recalls, “One of my most rewarding experiences was to visit Portraits, Inc., to admire portraiture by the leading artists of the day. A decade later, the gallery began representing me and found my first client.” Initially a successful comic and pulp fiction illustrator, Kinstler had been attending the Art Students League under Frank DuMond in hopes of becoming a portraitist. From DuMond, he learned to create paintings that exude a sense of economy, freedom, and optimism — a sensibility that felt uniquely American.
        Colorful, light-filled, and animated by lively handling, Kinstler’s technique is ideally suited for capturing fleeting glimpses of the sitter’s personality. This swashbuckling style has been most successful when portraying bigger-than-life personalities who don’t fade under the glare of his talent — among them Katharine Hepburn, John Wayne, James Cagney, and Tom Wolfe. Illustrated here is Kinstler’s show-stopping portrait of the philanthropist Iris Cantor poised to receive guests in her grand townhouse; the sculpture to her right denotes the passion with which she and her late husband (B. Gerald Cantor) acquired (and donated to museums) an enormous number of works by Auguste Rodin.
        Key to the continuing success of Portraits, Inc., has been its roster. Currently representing more than 150 artists spanning an array of styles and price points, this list includes such leading realists as Daniel E. Greene (b. 1934). Not exclusively a portraitist, Greene demonstrates an equal genius for architectonic still lifes and large narrative compositions that situate the figure in urban environments. Illustrated here is a portrait from the renowned Subway Series depicting his wife, Wende Caporale, who is also represented by Portraits, Inc., and best known for delightful pastels of children. This image demonstrates Greene’s uncompromising realism and virtuosic interplay of light, surface, and form.
        With four small portraits tucked under his arm, John Howard Sanden (b. 1935) took a deep breath and swung open the door to Portraits, Inc.’s full-floor gallery in Midtown Manhattan’s Fuller Building. Andrea Ericson, the gallery director, had an eye for fresh talent and took an immediate interest in the young man’s work — as did a visitor viewing the gallery’s portrait samples and soon-to-be-shipped commissions. “That was 1970,” Sanden recalls. “The visitor, I learned later that day, was the young U.S. Senator Peter Dominick of Colorado, shopping for an artist to paint his portrait. He selected me, so I went to Washington the next day. That marked the end of my career in magazine illustration, and the beginning of my career as a portraitist.”
        Applying the firm’s brand of American realism to scenes of quiet wealth and moral fortitude, Sanden went on to become one of its most in-demand masters. His elegant restraint was quickly recognized as suitable for the government and corporate commissions that became a mainstay of the gallery’s brokerage trade. Sanden’s portrait of William B. Harrison, Jr., chairman and CEO of JP Morgan Chase, is an ideal example of the refinement and relaxed assuredness that Sanden bestows upon his sitters. 


        In 2008, Beverly B. McNeil and Julia G. Baughman assumed the leadership of Portraits, Inc., a partnership augmented by the arrival of Ruth Reeves two years later. McNeil and Reeves had previously founded their own firms — respectively, Portrait Brokers of America and The Portrait Source. Baughman’s background was in finance. Guided by this trio, Portraits, Inc., has grown to include gallery locations nationwide and a network of regional sales associates.
        Understanding that America encompasses numerous regions, each with its own cultural tastes, the proprietors have wisely broadened their roster to include such artists as Michael Shane Neal (b. 1968), Jennifer R. Welty (b. 1958), Sharon Sprung (b. 1953), and Daniel Gerhartz (b. 1965). These talents represent an ever-widening range of expressions and styles, as well as the company’s future because they are portraiture’s rising masters. Well known for his fresh alla prima, Neal is considered Kinstler’s most promising protégé; indeed, the two men exhibited together in Realism Now: Mentors and Protégés, a 2003 show at Boston’s Vose Galleries.
        Welty’s popularity owes largely to narrative portraits that compose multiple figures into scenes that recall important events, or perhaps happy pastimes, from her clients’ lives. “One of my favorite commissions,” she notes, “occurred in the same Cape Cod cove where the impressionist master Frank Benson once painted. I had the privilege of painting my client’s children in a boat in the same light that Benson enjoyed, and I even got to meet Benson’s granddaughter, who still lived in the cove. The children’s father would sail the boat past me; on each circling, we would add another child to the boat, until all four were incorporated. Painting four wriggling children in a moving target is not easy! But the painting became a perfect example of the timelessness of fine art, and I am grateful that people still appreciate this tradition. Maybe it’s just paint that holds all of history together!”
        Sharon Sprung is based in New York City, which prides itself on being cutting-edge in all matters. Situating traditional portraiture within the city’s competitive art market, then, is no mean feat. Yet Sprung’s coolly minimalist works, spiced with a pinch of postmodern whimsy, always hit the right note. Painted in a hyper-realistic style on braced hardwood (which further reduces the visibility of her brushwork) and displayed unframed, they are proving well suited to the streamlined mid-century modern decors many city-dwellers have adopted.
        Wisconsin’s Daniel Gerhartz is the newest find at Portraits, Inc. In You Carried Me, he brings full-circle Lois Shaw’s desire to reinvigorate a genre that had become de-legitimized and corrupted. Citing yet not quoting the Spanish master Joaquín Sorolla, Gerhartz here unleashes the full power of oil paint’s expressive potential to create a light-filled and poignant scene of familial affection.
         McNeil, Baughman, and Reeves remain devoted to the firm’s founding objective — to restore portraiture to its central place within the fine arts. McNeil explains, “The list of distinguished artists Portraits, Inc., has represented includes many ‘giants’ of the past century: Andrew Wyeth, Henriette Wyeth, Albert Murray, Robert Brackman, John Koch, Samuel Edmund Oppenheim, Sidney Dickinson, Aaron Shikler, and Nelson Shanks. While celebrating this legacy, our goal is to secure steady commissions for the contemporary artists we represent so they may continue working and developing. Ultimately they will also become ‘giants,’ and Portraits, Inc. will again have fulfilled its mission.”