Our Spring Live Auction of Important Canadian Art includes a number of portraits by artists from a wide array of backgrounds. In certain works, importance is placed on the sitter’s identity, while in others the model is secondary to a particular sentiment or underlying message. Media and formal qualities such as colour scheme and brushstroke application also play a role in the artist’s intentions for presenting a human figure in a work of art.
The longstanding practice of portraiture was historically intended for documenting and memorializing the rich and powerful. Prior to the invention of photography, a painted, sculpted, or drawn portrait was the only way to record one’s appearance. Customarily, most completed works consisted of a serious, closed-lip stare, rarely demonstrating any emotion beyond a slight smile. In most cases the artist’s objective was to capture the inner essence of the subject – the expression of character and moral quality, as opposed to anything superficial or temporary. Following the invention of photography and developments in modern art, portraiture has evolved as a practice to be much more liberated for personal expression and experimentation.
The artists whose portraits are featured in our Spring Live Auction had the freedom to portray their subjects in their own individual style and for whichever purpose they chose. This blog entry takes a closer look at what makes a selection of six of these artworks significant and what differentiates them from one another, as I believe portraits can be better and further appreciated when a context is provided.
William Goodridge Roberts
Seated Nude (Joan)
oil on canvas
signed and dated “May, 1955” lower right
32 x 25 ins (81.3 x 63.5 cms)
Goodridge Roberts (1904-1974) was known for landscapes, portraits and still lifes with vivid colours and expressive brushstrokes. The identity of the sitter is particularly pertinent in this example of the Roberts’ work, as she is the artist’s wife. Painted in 1955, the artwork was acquired by the current owner directly from Mrs. Roberts in 1977. Joan’s relaxed pose, together with the casual interior setting with loosely draped fabric, alludes to a strong sense of intimacy in the picture; this is reinforced by our knowledge of the relationship between the sitter and the artist.
Jean Paul Lemieux
Dame au collier de perles
oil on canvas
signed lower right; titled on the stretcher
20 x 16 ins (50.8 x 40.6 cms)
Dame au collier de perles illustrates Jean Paul Lemieux’s ability to highlight human emotion and facial expression. Arguably the most famous Quebecois artist, Lemieux’s (1904-1990) portraits were often influenced by Edvard Munch and the Expressionist school of painting, as they evoke anxiety and the artist’s dark and tragic vision. The unidentified sitter’s powerful stare directly at the viewer exudes anxiousness and vulnerability; it is contrasted, however, with an ornate three-strand pearl necklace and glamorous red dress. A woman wearing a necklace became a recurring motif in Lemieux’s portraits, referencing the popular theme of feminine vanity in Western painting.
Painter and His Model (Egon Schiele)
chemical patina on bronze
signed, dated 2015 and numbered 1/3
28.5 x 10 x 10 ins (72.4 x 25.4 x 25.4 cms) (overall)
Contemporary sculptor Joe Fafard (b. 1942) created his ‘Mes Amis’ series as a tribute to those who have inspired him in his own artwork, whether it be artists, friends or family members. Exhibited in 2015 at the Slate Fine Art Gallery in Regina, the series included sculptures of several 19th and 20th century artists, such as Emily Carr, Michael Snow, Georgia O’Keeffe, and in this case, Egon Schiele. Fafard depicts the Austrian painter Schiele, who is known for his nude figural works and self-portraits, standing with a naked man hugging him from behind, thus forming “The Painter and His Model.”
plaster sculpture, mounted on a wood frame
43 x 36 x 12 ins (109.2 x 91.4 x 30.5 cms) (overall)
Contemporary artist Evan Penny (b. 1952) worked with FX Smith in Toronto in the 1990s, making prosthetics, body doubles and other props for a variety of films. This experience inspired his later three-dimensional works, notably this relief sculpture from the L. Faux series from 2000-2005. The production plaster explores the notion of blurring boundaries between the real and the replica in its extraordinary detail that creates a lifelike three-dimensional portrait of Libby Faux. Executed in high relief, the sculptural aesthetic of L. Faux reminds us of the white marble portrait busts of Ancient Rome.
Portrait of Thomas Archer, Esq.
oil on canvas
40 x 33 ins (101.6 cms x 83.8 cms)
A Montreal native who studied in Paris, Randolph Hewton (1888-1960) was a pioneer of Modernism in Canadian painting of the early twentieth century. Portrait of Thomas Archer, Esq. was likely a commissioned work and demonstrates Hewton’s modernist take on the traditional practice of portraiture. The sitter’s attire suggests a formal or professional demeanor, though his cross-legged pose with a book on his lap and cigarette in his hand indicates a more casual or ‘modern’ tone to the painting. Hewton’s use of vibrant colours were at first controversial in Canada, as he had adopted this palette from the European Avant-Garde while in Paris from 1908 to 1913.
Portrait of a Woman
oil on canvas
signed lower right
13 x 12 ins (33 x 30 cms)
Marc-Aurèle Suzor-Coté (1869-1937) was a famous French-Canadian artist known for his landscape paintings as well as portraits of their rural inhabitants. The artist had a deep respect and empathy for his sitters, as emphasized in this portrait of a peasant woman in profile. Suzor-Coté was influenced by 19th century French Realist artists such as Jean-François Millet. The Realists had the controversial objective to place importance on the working-class and elevate their status as worthy subjects for portraiture – which had traditionally been reserved for the wealthy.