Nine things

Portraits of the artist … and others

WE get a wide variety of invitations arriving in our email-box – theatres, concerts, gallery and exhibitions, food fairs, gin tastings, street theatre, restaurant and pub openings or new menus … and more. But the invitation that arrived from the North Dorset artist Phyllis Wolff was a real surprise. Would Fanny sit for her portrait to be painted?

Nobody has ever asked either of us to be painted before, and asking Fanny to sit still long enough for even the roughest sketch was a bit of a stretch! Still, on the basis that you should, as they say, try everything but Morris dancing and incest (and personally, we both enjoy Morris dancing), Fanny said yes and had her first sitting at Phyllis’s airy studio deep in the countryside near Fontmell Magna.

It’s an odd experience – and keeping still is only half the challenge. There is also not talking, resisting the urge to twitch hair away, blink or laugh. The results will go on show in a London exhibition later this year, with a Dorset show also planned. But it set us thinking about portraiture and what it tells us about the people who paint them and the people who are painted. Here is our pick of favourite portraits, from the Renaissance to the 20th century:

Any self-portrait by Rembrandt – it’s something about the humanity of that face, the unflinching honesty of the artist revealing blotches and wrinkles, and the glorious patina of those 17th century paints.

Whistler’s Mother – so familiar, and so simple, austere, enigmatic and compelling. Officially titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1,  James McNeill Whistler’s 1871 painting of his mother Anna is one of the finest and most famous American paintings. It has been in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris since 1891.

Federico da Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino, portrait by Piera della Francesca – Federico was one of the most successful condottieri of the Italian Renaissance, and lord of Urbino from 1444 (as Duke from 1474) until his death. The Duke is shown as a rather ugly man with his massive broken nose, but you can also see the intelligence and the character in that face. He was an intellectual who commissioned a great library and assembled a large humanistic court in the Ducal Palace. And with his beloved wife Battista Sforza, he had one of the great love matches of his time..

The Arnolfini  Portrait – a 1434 painting by Jan van Eyck of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, a merchant from Lucca who was living in Bruges, and his wife, who apparently is not pregnant – she is holding up her dress in the fashion of the day.

American Gothic – it’s more an icon of American pioneer life than a conventional portrait, but it is has extraordinary power and has been parodied and reimagined countless times. The 1930 painting by Grant Wood, in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, shows a farmer with a stern expression and a pitchfork, and a severely dressed woman. The figures were modelled by the artist’s sister, Nan Wood Graham, and their dentist, Dr Byron McKeeby.

Thomas Cromwell  by Hans Holbein – thanks to the brilliance of Dame Hilary Mantel, (and Mark Rylance’s complex and compelling performance in Wolf Hall), we think we understand Cromwell, once seen as one of the most terrifying figures in Henry VIII’s entourage. Mantel humanised him, and made him come alive, if not actually sympathetic. This small painting by the German/Swiss artist Hans Holbein the Younger, dated c1532-4, shows Cromwell at the height of his power in his late 40s. One of the three surviving copies of the painting is in the Frick Collection in New York where it is hung opposite Holbein’s Portrait of Thomas More, a fascinating if historically uncomfortable pairing.

Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940, by the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo – this small painting shows Kahlo directly confronting the viewer. It is full of symbols of her extraordinary life and the constant pain she suffered after a bus accident. She made this portrait after her divorce from the Mexican painter Diego Rivera. It seems to sum up the unflinching courage with which she faced pain and suffering.

Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix – this famous 1926 painting of the “new woman” of post First World War Germany was the cover of the catalogue for a memorable exhibition, Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), at  the Tate Gallery. Dix, one of the leaders of the movement, was showing the social changes in Germany at this time. You have to remind yourself that within less than 10 years, this questioning, rigorously intellectual and artistically adventurous period would be over and a new era of fear, persecution and war was about to begin.

Annie by Lucian Freud – Lucian Freud, grandson of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, was one of the greatest self portraitists in the history of art. He was renowned for his brutally honest depiction of the anatomy and psychology of even his most beautiful models, including the model Kate Moss. He painted only people who were close to him, friends and family (this painting is his daughter, the poet Annie Freud, who lives in West Dorset).

Pictured: Federico de Montefeltro by Piero della Francesca; Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger; self-portrait by Frida Kahlo; the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix; Annie by Lucian Freud.