Tuesday, January 11, 2011

My favorites from the Gibbes Museum

Edward Greene Malbone, Louisa Charlotte Izard. 1801.

Unknown artist, Sophia Jane Withers. 1805.

Thomas Sully, Sarah Reeve Ladson. 1823.

John Russell. Juliet Georgiana Gibbes. 1803.

Samuel F. B. Morse, Emma Doughty, 1820.

Thomas Sulley, Catherine Mierckin. 1814.

Thomas Sully, Charles Izard Manigault. 1817.

Sir Thomas Lawrence, Portrait of Lady Caroline Lamb. c. 1805


Unknown painter, Charles Pinckney. 1740

The Gibbes had portraits from around 1700 - 1950, with a special "contemporary Charleston" section from around 1970-1995. In the 1780-1850 room I was reminded of Virginia Woolf's description in Orlando of the change between the Enlightenment-era 1700s to the 1800s: as if everyone was suddenly bundling up to protect themselves from a stealthy dampness. As if the 1700s were airy, exciting, idealistic and illuminated by the crystalline light of reason. Then came the stuffy, materialistic, pragmatic 1800s. The difference between the centuries in portraiture was dramatic. My favorite era, though, was the Napoleonic Era, around 1805-1820ish. It was delicate, idealistic and effeminate; but the stiffness of the 1770s had gone out of style and an effortless rural style was in vogue, due to the threat of decapitation levied on the more metropolitan aristocrats during the French Revolution. The subjects from this time looked like flawed human beings, relaxed but portrayed as their ideal selves. Forty years later, everyone looked selfish, constipated, and defensive. Portraiture seemed to mostly suck until 1910 or so.

I think the Napoleonic portraits are the stuff that is relevant now, that we draw from as traditional portraitists or rebel against in order to move forward: realistic, attractive, elegant. The subject as a distinct person has been called into question by artists such as Andy Warhol, who used depictions of people as an allusion to the cultural celebrity fetish, and by many photorealists, who depict people as visual objects. But the Romantic idea of an individual subject, and portraying the "essence" of the subject, though considered quaint by many, is still a part of some very important contemporary work. These Napoleonic portraits bring to mind contemporary artists such as Jenny Saville and Elizabeth Peyton.

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