As part of the Figge Art Museum’s exhibit “For America: 200 Years of Painting from the National Academy of Design,” a presentation on the importance of portraits and portraiture will be given virtually Thursday by Brandon Brame Fortune, chief curator emeritus of the National Portrait Gallery.
“There are quite a number of self-portraits in this show,” Fortune said in an interview with the Quad-City Times on Monday.
The National Academy was founded in 1825 by artists and architects to promote the arts through instruction and exhibition, she said.
Fortune said that in the 1830s, members who were newly elected — called associates — were required to submit a portrait of themselves, either a self-portrait or one created by another artist.
As a result, Fortune said: “There are 1,200 portraits in their collection. Some are in this show to round out a really beautiful collection.”
Portraits were important back before cameras because otherwise we would not know what the artist looked like, she said. So paintings, and prints and engravings were important.
But the artist is always interpreting and deciding what they want the viewer to see.
“Artists can certainly replicate their features,” Fortune said. “They’re always making choices along the way; what objects are in the portrait, how they choose to look directly out at the audience who is always there. They’re always making choices and one can see that in the self-portraits.”
To hire an artist to do a portrait in the 18th and 19th centuries, she added: “One would have to be well-to-do. The subject the artists is painting wants to be flattered, and the artist is supposed to deliver a pleasing portrait.
“With a self-portrait, you still may not be seeing the internal workings of the artist’s mind,” Fortune added. “You see what they want you to see.”
Most portraits are true to form, she said, “especially for national leaders. There may be some idealization, but sometimes not.
“It’s lucky that the Figge is open, and it’s really important for people in the Quad-City area to go and see these treasures,” Fortune said.
The exhibit opened to the public on Tuesday and continues until May 16. To allow for social distancing, the works are spread out across three of the museum's four floors, providing not only safety but a "VIP experience" in that visitors should not feel rushed or crowded because of gallery capacity limits, Michelle Hargrave, the Figge's executive director and CEO, said.
The exhibition explores how artists have represented themselves and their country, including its shifting diversity, and the complexities of what it means to be an American. Portraits are a key component.
Fortune’s presentation begins at 5 p.m.
To see the presentation, register for free at the Figge’s website: https://figgeartmuseum.org/programs-and-events/calendar/event/american-artists-self-portraits-then-and-now/354