The famous Edwardian society portrait painter John Singer Sargent once said, ‘Every time I paint a portrait, I lose a friend’, and in recent months I’ve found myself nodding sagely at these words. In my naivety I hadn’t realised the lot of a would-be portrait painter was best served by someone with the diplomatic skills of Henry Kissinger, the wisdom of Solomon, and the conjuring tricks of David Copperfield. No one thought to tell me. Besides, I’d always assumed Sargent to be slightly prone to unnecessary histrionics. He was after all, American.
But give the man his due, he understood the value to posterity of a pithy quote. And he could paint too. All well and good you might think, and if he’d excelled with landscapes, bowls of fruit, or poker playing dogs, he’d have had more friends on his hands than the average talent-free karaoke bar warbler has on his Facebook page. But he didn’t. He preferred painting portraits.
All of which is further evidence that for a painter, the art of portraiture is probably the most difficult to master. I mean, every client says they want a ‘truthful’ rendition, but they don’t, not really. No, nobody wants their big moment ruined by too much attention to detail do they? - the long nose; that wart; those bags under the eyes; the beer gut; the bad breath. And that’s just the women.
The men are even worse.
I had one chap ask me to sort out his teeth. When I politely informed him I was a painter and not an orthodontic specialist he seemed oddly affronted, his wonky teeth peering out at me like Victorian tombstones. We never were quite as ‘friendly’ with one another after I delivered the finished painting. Yes, I’d straightened out his gnashers, but I refused to acknowledge he’d said anything to me about making sure no one knew he wore a wig.
And yet ... give me a portrait commission and I’m as happy as a Honduran in a hat. In that orgasmic moment of commission I imagine that this time I really am going to turn out a masterpiece, a character defining depiction of the subject, a John Singer Sargent special. Hell no, I’m going to stake my claim as the JSS for the twenty-first century!
Ah but of course the great man himself knew the truth of it. It wasn’t unusual for him to dismiss a sitting client, several weeks into a work, announcing that it wasn’t possible to continue with the portrait. He would then destroy the failed work. Perhaps, at a later date, he would try again. Invariably he would then succeed, but the fact remains, with portraiture there are no guarantees.
And lets’ be honest here, who sees us exactly as we see ourselves anyway? I remember one year on holiday in Tenerife when my kids roped me into having a portrait of myself done by a street artist. It was a revelation. On seeing the finished result I was astonished to discover I had such a bad haircut.
So why do I paint portraits? Well, another famous Edwardian, Oscar Wilde, once said that every portrait is a portrait of the artist and not the sitter, so maybe I’m on a voyage of self discovery?
No, I think for me the moment of gratification is that moment I step away from the painting and really see my subject taking shape for the first time on the canvas. I’ve got the slobbering mouth at the correct angle, the bloodshot eyes are carrying just the right dash of cadmium red, and that filthy temper he’s always trying to hush up is beginning to shine through. Yes, it’s another winner.
So, it’s looking like another friendship’s about to bite the dust, but what the heck, there’s always Facebook.