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The Perils Of Immortality
For centuries the Newport rich have been commissioning portraits of themselves—and sometimes getting a surprise when they see the results
July/August 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 4
When it comes to showing a fine face to future generations, the modern subjects in this collection who have perhaps fared best were painted by a loved one. Olive Bigelow Pell arrived in Newport as the second wife of Congressman Herbert Claiborne Pell. Her Pells at Tea , 1933, captures the ease and tenderness of a halcyon family moment. Mr. Pell lounges, Mrs. Pell serves, her daughter perches on the arm of Herbert’s chair, her son-in-law bounces her grandchild on his knee. No outsider intrudes to disturb the peace. The artist is one of the family. (The fact that the family is an amalgam of two shattered by divorce, a somewhat unusual state of affairs at the time, adds another dimension to the scene.)
SITTING FOR A PORTRAIT IS A STATEMENT OF TRUST. THE SUBJECT IS SAYING, “I WILL LET YOU FASHION THE FACE I SHOW TO POSTERITY.”
The equally affectionate Herbert and Claiborne Pell , 1927, tells a story as clearly and eloquently as a Norman Rockwell illustration. Pell painted this luminous portrait of her husband and his son, the future senator Claiborne Pell, shortly after her marriage. The arrangement of hands—Herbert Pell raises his right to make a point while his son clasps his father’s left in his own small fist—creates a magical circle of private love and public duty.
It is a truism that portraits reveal what is important to the sitter—the squire with his horses and hunting dogs, the dowager with her diamonds—but in Pell’s self-portrait, One Lump or Two? , her gorgeous silver tea service and tantalizingly edible sandwiches shimmer with irony as well as exuberance.
Pell saw. A diplomatic colleague of her husband wrote to Franklin D. Roosevelt that she was the embodiment of Ruskin’s remark that “for a thousand who can think there is only one that can see.” She also worked, constantly, painstakingly, passionately. But other artistically inclined insiders found the conflict between the delights of life and the demands of art more difficult to reconcile. An artist neighbor encouraged Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney to pay less attention to her social role and more to her sculpture, and fortunately for the museum-going public, she followed his advice. The Senator Pell pictured here as a boy ascribed his championship of the National Endowment for the Arts to the fact that he was a “frustrated artist.” But for some the good life proved too alluring. The senior Pell, a model of sober statesmanship in the portrait, later wrote his son, “My worst quality was, of course, an almost uncontrollable unwillingness to work except sporadically.”
In a world where work is an afterthought, or at least a choice, what, then, are the inhabitants thinking when they ask artists, some of them self-proclaimed revolutionaries, to paint their portraits? They are supporting the arts certainly, but they could do that by buying an existing canvas. The answer, I suspect, has something to do with family pride and the aforementioned hubris. The result is often fabulous, but the likeness is not always flattering. Sometimes it is not even a likeness.
Diego Rivera’s Jojo (Joseph Hudson) , 1955, is a beautiful and haunting case in point. The painting is not really a portrait, since the little heir’s face bears an uncanny similarity to the aging Mexican artist’s features, but with its mysterious imagery and arresting composition it is pure seduction.
A 1982 painting by Larry Rivers of Jojo’s sister, Titi, Princess von Fuerstenberg, Portrait of the Princess (Titi Hudson in Blazing Pink) , does achieve an individual and immediate resemblance. A lyrical “sketch” in black on a splash of pink, the portrait reveals a wealth of character with an economy of line. Clear-eyed but not unaffectionate, it also illustrates what Rivers called “my conflict with and about the useful rich, toward whom I acted more democratically than I felt.” The catalogue does not reveal what the princess thought of the painting, but it does say that Josephine Bryce was delighted with the way her friend Salvador Dali portrayed her. Posed in profile like a Renaissance noble, she wears her favorite green velvet dress and holds a red carnation to signify wifely devotion. The background is recognizable Dali: a lurid sky; a surrealistic lake; a miniature Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, and musicians to represent the subject’s interest in the arts. Mrs. Bryce was, in fact, posing against the steel walls of a City Bank vault. She was determined to sit wearing the family emeralds, but they belonged to her brother at the time, and the insurance company would not permit them to leave the premises. The portrait hung in Mrs. Bryce’s dining room for forty years and always disturbed her daughter, who wondered if the artist hadn’t seen a hardness in her mother that she’d missed.