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March 3, 2007

The "Introductory Portrait"

"In all professions each affects a look and an exterior to appear what he wishes the world to believe that he is. Thus we may say that the whole world is made up of appearances." -François de La Rochefoucauld - French writer (1630-1680)

Gustave Courbet - Man with a Pipe (Self-portrait) 1848-49 - Oil on canvas - Musée Fabre, Montpellier

On my website's biography page there is a tiny snapshot of myself taken when I was a very little girl. I simply don't have a better picture of myself to show as an introductory portrait. Maybe I can make a good self-portrait someday that will work for that page, but first I have to master the skills it will take to make a "silk purse out of a sow's ear." Not that I want to portray myself as "someone else, younger and (unlike me) beautiful" in the picture, but I'll have to figure out how to make a picture with me in it that will reveal who I am without frightening people.

I sometimes wonder about the pictures people have on their websites on the "Artist's statement" or "Biography" page. Why do they think it's important for us to know what they look like? And how much of a chance is there that one picture - a tiny slice out of a person's life often out of the usual context of that life - can really tell us much, if anything, about them?

Wouldn't it be better to have no introductory picture at all rather than to risk irritating or offending people, or giving them the wrong impression? What does how they look have to do with their art, anyway? Isn't it the art that's by far most important? Does it matter what we think about how the artist looks?

It seems to me, after having looked at untold dozens of these introductory pictures, that many artists (and "art photographers") actually don't give a darn about what we think about how they look (but why then do they put a picture up at all?).

Often he (this is more usual in the case of men rather than women so I will use the male pronoun) looks bored, and very "serious." He looks as if he's thinking that he isn't going to pretend that life is anything but grim, and you get the impression that he's very busy and that he has neither the time nor the inclination to go out of his way to prepare himself for his "portrait," no matter that it's going to be the first (and maybe only) one that many people will see of him. He looks as if he considers the people who come to look at his artwork of no importance at all. (I'm not referring to those who are busily painting or sculpting or drawing or looking through a viewfinder, but those who appear to have been rudely interrupted and seem anxious to get away from prying eyes.) Is he just affecting the must-have "artistic look" he thinks makes him look like a REAL, SERIOUS ARTIST? Surely he can stop long enough to acknowledge those who will be viewing him, instead of insulting them with his lack of interest.

Louise Breslau - Self-portrait - Oil on Canvas - Private Collection

It's not that I think that the artist should pretend to be a jolly person if they're not, nor, it seems to me, should he (or she) even smile at all in a portrait if when they do it in "real life" it doesn't convey the "real person" but rather is something fleeting and rare that pops out only now and then. I myself hardly ever smile. I'm sure some people think I've never smiled in my life, because they've never seen me do so. I smile inside (I actually do have a good sense of humor). In fact, I am an introvert, but I'm sure I have all the same feelings outgoing people have and you need neither pity nor fear me; I feel at least as much joy, pleasure, interest, delight, and contentment as anyone else, I have no doubt at all, but you probably wouldn't guess it to look at me.

If a serious picture (as opposed to the tiny snapshot of me taken in my early childhood) was to be the introduction to "me" on my website, I would hope it wouldn't make me look thoroughly cheerless and self-centered due to my non-smiling and also otherwise uncharming face ... It would take a lot
of thought and "applied artistry" (applied to the overall picture, that is - not a "makeup job" on my face that makes me look like someone else) to give another impression, I realize, but that's what should be aimed for; after all, one of the most important jobs of an artist is to tell the truth in spite of any superficial so-called "truth" that might get in the way.

I know that sounds comical, what I wrote above. One might think I am going to great lengths to justify hiding myself. This of course is to some extent true, but honestly I strongly believe that it is also true that our looks often lie about who we are; we need to figure out who we are and then work around the physical "reality" in order to show, in the overall picture, the truth about us. It's an interesting challenge.

Getting back to my contemplated "serious" introductory picture of myself, I wouldn't fake a smile, but I would attempt to make sure elements of the picture showed that I had a sense of humor (which I do have - It's just other ways of looking at things than is normal) and that my art is made to share with others and for their benefit as well as mine, not just to satisfy a craving - or need - to make pictures that are meant for me alone to profit from.

In fact, I would want the picture of myself to be a small "gift" to people, just as my other pictures are meant to be (the best ones, the ones that I keep; the others are meant to be "good ones," also, but if they don't measure up, eventually they go into the trash; many go into the trash). The gift-worthiness would result from the way the picture was made - the thought and the care that went into making it. I would hope it would be a picture that would be of interest to people no matter who the subject was.

Also, I think that something in the portrait should suggest respect for and a desire to communicate with the observer. I would want it to imply that I was cognizant of their presence and was not rejecting them, and that I had made something for them (the picture) that (I hope) is enjoyable or interesting to contemplate. I would like my picture to say something like this to the viewer: "Please take a look. I hope you like it. It's for you and is representative of the kind of pictures I draw and the way I look at life ... Come in and see if there's something else on my site you might like to look at."

But, of course, different artists, and different artwork, have different purposes, and what I have figured out would be good for me would hardly apply to most others - They know what it is they want to feature about themselves and their own art.

Actually, I think that probably such a picture of introduction is not needed by people such as myself who are not seeking or expecting to become well-known, but are simply wishing to share their artwork. Yet, some people expect to see one, and it does liven up the biography page, and so the tiny picture of myself as a three-year-old is just fine (at least until I come up with the "silk purse" self-portrait described above).


Note: My thoughts about the "picture of the artist" I have been referring to do not necessarily apply to self-portraits, or photos or paintings or drawings of the artists by others, that are not meant to be the picture that is intended by the artist to give the first and main impression of his or her self to "the public." I'm referring in this article, in fact, to those introductory pictures only. In other portraits of ourselves there are other things to consider.


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