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Volume 41. No. 1.
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 Ronald Sherr
 


Portrait of Portrait

A photo is a moment in time, but a portrait is timeless. Or so says the artist whose portrait of Peter Stanley now joins Pomona's gallery of presidents.

By Marjorie L. Harth

Portrait painter Ronald Sherr works on the top floor of one of New York City’s oldest buildings, one of only two extant structures built in the late 18th century by the Stuyvesant family. With its weathered floors and unobstructed bank of north-facing windows, its open spaces filled with easels and pots of sable brushes, gold-framed paintings and drawings, antique wooden mannequins and palettes, it resembles a richly detailed painting of the quintessential artist’s studio. One half expects the painter to enter with a flourish in smock and beret.

Posing for Sherr last spring, Peter Stanley could see the back of the canvas on which he was being immortalized as the eighth president of Pomona College, the face of the artist at work, and his own image as it emerged on the canvas, reflected back to him in the large, elaborately framed mirror behind the painter. “I’m experiencing the Velázquez effect,” Stanley quipped, referring to the 17th-century court painter’s 1656 portrait of the Spanish Infanta Margarita and her maids of honor titled Las meninas.

The analogy was apt. In Velázquez’s composition, the princess and her attendants face the viewer in traditional fashion. Behind them and slightly to one side, however, we also see the face of the artist at work on a canvas, its back turned to us, not unlike Stanley’s view of his portrait in process. In the Velázquez, however, the mirror behind the painter reflects the image of King Phillip IV and his queen who, we realize, are not only the painter’s focus but also occupying our space, that of the viewer. Simultaneously portrait, self-portrait, and comment on the concept of portraiture, Velázquez’s fascinatingly hermetic work addresses the conventions of painting and questions the traditional expectation that it provide a window onto the world, a mirror of life as we see and (think we) know it.

Watching Sherr at work on Peter Stanley’s portrait last spring, the parallels were all the more striking because I was there, yet another observer in a multi-layered tableau, for portrayal purposes of my own—to write, as it were, a portrait of a portrait. Meanwhile, New York photographer Lynn Saville was framing images of the process through her camera’s lens. The layering of “reality” was dizzying, and in Sherr’s studio that morning it was clear that questions about the nature, purpose, and alleged objectivity of portraiture continue to confront today’s painter of portraits.

In the spring of 2003, as Peter Stanley’s 12-year term drew to a close, the College commissioned Sherr to paint the presidential portrait. The artist, whose 1995 portrait of former President George Bush hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, has had a distinguished clientele that includes several college presidents, among them Harold Shapiro who recently retired from Princeton University. Stanley found the Bush portrait impressive and was reassured by Shapiro’s highly positive personal account of his experience as Sherr’s subject.

Once selected, Sherr was required to move fast. Board of Trustees Chair Stewart Smith ’68 felt strongly that the portrait should be undertaken as close to Stanley’s presidency as possible to assure that it would reflect, as he said, “Peter as we knew him.” Accordingly, Sherr visited the College in May and spent most of a day walking the campus with Stanley, identifying possible settings and taking hundreds of photographs. From these, Sherr selected one image, taken in Little Bridges, that he found most compelling and, on this basis, began work.

Stanley recalls: “Going from the stage of being photographed to appearing for a sitting, you think most about what the face will look like. I remember two things about my first visit to the studio: that I recognized the expression, and that I felt a great sense of relief that I wouldn’t have to stand there, trying to imagine the look I had on my face and what he was going to do with it.” In fact, the sittings (or “standings,” as Stanley called them) turned out to be enjoyable, in large part because Sherr, who is soft spoken, unassuming in manner, and possessed of a wry sense of humor, has a knack for putting his subjects at ease.

With classical music playing softly in the background, artist and subject alternated periods of comfortable silence with long conversations. Sherr is as serious and thoughtful about portraiture as he is eager to share entertaining anecdotes from the hundreds of hours he has spent face-to-face with a variety of prominent subjects. In the end, Stanley visited Sherr’s studio a total of four times for periods lasting up to three hours. Between sessions, Sherr worked from a mannequin dressed in Stanley’s Harvard robes. Stanley was surprised at the amount of attention devoted to details—the creases and folds of the robes, the tiny bit of white shirt that shows—and also by Sherr’s willingness to reconsider and repaint certain passages. “It was staggering to watch him paint for thirty minutes and then say, ‘No, I need to take that out and start again.’”

Peter Stanley was initially opposed to being portrayed in academic regalia, preferring a business suit. Ultimately, however, he was persuaded by Sherr that robes were more appropriate because they bespeak his role at Pomona. “Naturally,” Stanley says, “you think how you’d like to look. But then you realize that this isn’t really about you, that this portrait has a public purpose; it’s a visual metaphor of a presidency.” A metaphor, one might add, in the sense not only of symbol but of “likeness.”

The requirement that a portrait capture a likeness—as judged by the subject and those closest to him or her—has bedeviled portrait painters throughout history, in large part because whereas physiognomy can be measured, “appearance” implies a necessarily subjective perceiver. To some degree, we all “pose” for ourselves and for others—“prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet,” as T.S. Eliot wrote. Portraitists talk about the “mirror face,” the way we arrange our features in front of a mirror that determines the way we think we look, and the equally hopeful “camera face” we adopt when being photographed. (Sherr never shows his clients the photographs he takes at the start of the process, because he knows our preferences are notoriously unreliable.) If it is impossible for us to see ourselves as others see us, it is equally the case that our perceptions of others are far from objective, colored as they are by a host of environmental and personal variables. This leaves the portraitist in the unenviable position of balancing at least two sets of biased assumptions with his own perceptions of the subject.

Historically, one means of assessing the aptness of a painted likeness was to rely on the “innocent” eye of childhood. In 1471, the 20-month-old son Galeazza Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan, was shown a portrait of his father. To the great relief of the painter, the child exclaimed “Papa!” and made a show of reaching out to the figure. Similarly, the response of animals was thought to be revealing. It is said that Sir Joshua Reynolds’s pet macaw, which often appeared in his portraits, disliked the painter’s housemaid. When a pupil of Reynolds painted the servant, the macaw attacked the picture, thereby certifying its success, at least as a likeness.

Contemporary discussions of “likeness” inevitably involve photography, which would seem to offer a degree of objectivity not available to portraitists before the mid-19th century. In fact, Stanley remembers asking the artist early on about the difference between an extraordinarily good art photograph—a Yousuf Karsh for example—and a painted portrait. “Sherr replied that a photograph captures a moment. It may do so with all sorts of nuance, but it’s still a moment. A portrait, which is created in an iterative way, over time, on good days and bad, is layered, a composite. What results is both more and less than the view of any one moment. This seems particularly appropriate for a public portrait—that you’re not capturing an individual at a single moment but rather the artist’s interpretation of the subject in his public role.”

These perceptions are echoed succinctly by no less an established master than photographer Richard Avedon whose portraits are currently the subject of a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “All photographs are accurate,” he has said. “None of them is the truth.”

For Sherr, one indication of a painting that is “true” is the emergence of what he calls the “third person.” Portraiture appears to involve two principals—artist and subject—but Sherr’s concern is for what emerges from their interaction, a third reality that reflects both but, in the end, has its own existence and integrity. The artist admits that this distinct “presence” is difficult to achieve and doesn’t always happen. “If you’re successful,” he says, “you can see it materialize, as out of a fog, with a life of its own. Sometimes you make a few strokes—add a highlight to an eye—and it almost seems to breathe. Equally, however, it can be lost, sometimes never to be recaptured.”

Commissioned portraits, in fact, often involve more than two players, and all of them bring a distinct set of expectations. The fact that Sherr’s subject (Stanley) and client (Pomona College) were not one and the same extends this painting’s audience to include, at least theoretically, everyone who knew Peter Stanley as president. For the portrait painter bent on pleasing the client at all costs, which Sherr believes most are, the pressure can be paralyzing, requiring the artist to subvert his or her own sense of the subject and of the painting as a work of art.

With the confidence that has come with success, Sherr is undaunted. “People always want to look better than they really do. I’ve always thought it would be helpful to have a business card that reads ‘Portrai¬ture is not cosmetic surgery.’ But a hundred years from now, no one will know if this is how the person really looked. I want a portrait that is timeless, that holds up well as a painting. Likeness and expression are important, but first and foremost, it’s a painting.”

This leads one to ask why such paintings are important—why institutions like Pomona College value portraits of those who have played prominent roles in their histories. Stanley responds: “It is my sense that institutions are among the only parts of our society that give us a sense of history, a sense of having been part of something that was there before, and these portraits are a part of that. You look at President Baldwin—there he is with his starched collar. Perhaps the problematic notion of a ‘tribute to Christian civilization’ may even be embodied in that man, who doubtless believed it,” he added, referring to the motto on Pomona’s original seal. “I think Pomona’s portraits are, in a very small way, a reminder to those of us at the College at any given moment that we are part of something much, much larger than ourselves.”

Marjorie L. Harth is director emerita of the Pomona College Museum of Art and professor emerita of art history.

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