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The Perils Of Immortality

June 2024
6min read

For centuries the Newport rich have been commissioning portraits of themselves—and sometimes getting a surprise when they see the results

On a clement August evening in 1902, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III stood on the lawn of her Newport, Rhode Island, estate, receiving two hundred guests and looking, her son later recalled, like a Gainsborough painting in her plumed picture hat, cabochon emeralds, and diamond stomacher. The entertainment for the evening, which the press billed as “The Fete of Roses” and she called an at-home, included, in addition to a carnival complete with a calcium-lit midway and various games of chance, a production of the current musical hit The Wild Rose . Mrs. Vanderbilt spared neither effort nor expense—the Knickerbocker Theater went dark for two nights while the cast, scenery, and stage crew traveled north to her specially constructed theater—but her guests did not see the show that was packing in lesser mortals on Broadway. Like an MTV programmer, Mrs. Vanderbilt knew her audience’s attention span. She shaved the performance from three hours to one. While no one is claiming The Wild Rose marked a high point in the history of the American theater—it featured such memorable numbers as “Cupid Is the Captain” and Mrs. Vanderbilt’s favorite, “They Were All Doing the Same”—its mauling by a society matron is emblematic of the wary relationship between money and art.


The cave painters at Lascaux may have been the last to get along without patrons, and for all we know, they had others bringing home their bison. When the artist’s patron becomes his subject, the situation grows even more dicey. Uneasy is the hand that holds the brush that paints the slaver’s noble countenance, the merchant’s proud wife, the robber baron’s weakchinned heir.

In 1992 the Newport Art Museum assembled an exhibition of about two hundred portraits spanning a period of three centuries. Taken together, the paintings represented not only a who’s who of Newport but a retrospective of American portraiture from colonial times to the present, from Gilbert Stuart and Robert Feke to—and here’s the surprise—Diego Rivera and Richard Lindner. Many of the portraits, which belong to the sitters or their descendants, have since returned to their owners, but now the museum has put together 196 of them in a volume called Newportraits , published by the University Press of New England.

The collection, like the history of the city, has its high points and low. Settled in 1639 by a group fleeing the religious persecution of the Massachusetts Colony, colonial Newport was both celebrated and condemned for its tolerance. While Cotton Mather fulminated against this “common receptacle of the convicts of Jerusalem and the outcasts of the land,” merchants grew rich from the Triangular Trade, twenty-two distilleries turned molasses into rum, and one of the first paintings in the collection, a circa-1740 portrait of Mary Winthrop Wanton by Robert Feke, featured a décolletage so daring that in 1859 the directors of the local Redwood Library commissioned Jane Stuart, the daughter of Gilbert, to paint, under protest, a nosegay over the cleavage. Jane Stuart called the retouching an act of vandalism, but the patrons’ prudishness trumped the artist’s eye. And she had a widowed mother and several sisters to support.


Occupied by the British during the Revolution, Newport never recovered its former prosperity, despite its popularity as a summering spot for Southern gentry fleeing their native heat and malaria in the first half of the nineteenth century and New England intellectuals seeking one another’s company in the second. Two Pulitzer Prize-winning writers, Maud Howe Elliott (awarded the prize with her sisters Florence Marion Howe Hall and Laura E. Richards for a biography of their mother, Julia Ward Howe) and Edith Wharton, make appearances in this collection. Despite Wharton’s comment that she “did not care for watering-place mundanities,” she followed the trend toward fashionable European painters and sat for the Englishman Edward Harrison May.


By then the Gilded Age had arrived. The village built on tolerance had become the resort notorious for exclusivity. “Newport was the very Holy of Holies, the playground of the great ones of the earth from which all intruders were ruthlessly excluded by a set of cast-iron rules,” wrote Elizabeth Drexel Lehr, whose husband, Harry, succeeded Ward McAllister as the arbiter of social acceptability.

Sitting for a portrait is an act of hubris. The subject is saying, “I am worth looking at.” It is also a statement of trust in the artist: “I will let you fashion the face I show to posterity.” Even after photography had introduced a less risky road to immortality, the rich, the powerful, the celebrated—and those who wanted to be—continued to take the gamble.

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.)


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.


The possibility brings us back to that uneasy relationship. Society portraitists who are insiders tend to send valentines. Avant-garde artists of international standing make no promises, and a sitter who chooses one of the latter takes a chance. It is hard to look at the Dali portrait without thinking he’s having a little fun at his friend’s expense. It is impossible to gaze at the Rivera painting without falling in love with a work of art that resembles no one but speaks to everyone. Sometimes art triumphs and the patron still comes out ahead.

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