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Historic Portraits from the Collection is a counter-point to the exhibition, Contemporary Portraiture. A modest selection from the numerous portraits in the Burchfield Penney’s collection, the focus in this exhibition is on four categories self-portraits, paintings of artists, ‘aristocrats’, and friends.
Self-portraiture offers a complex position for the artist, as the subject. The material is always present, but the unavoidable attention to, and consideration of how one represents themselves in the world is the tantamount. It is as if your clothing, expression, and style of hair at any given point in your life remained the same forever.
The only thing that equals the self-portrait, is when an artist creates a painting of another artist. The negotiation of representation, personality, and the general attitude of the subject is complicated. There is the knowledge that in the end, you will be judged by a peer and judgment will be conflated by how a person feels about the quality of the work. This is similar in the way that people compare themselves within their peer-groups – true of friends, colleagues, and enemies.
Possibly the most common portrait comes in the form of the ‘aristocrat’, used in this case to mean anyone in a position of honor. We have all seen images of the rulers of banks and countries. This can be extended to subjects held in high regard. For example, in the painting by J.J. Lankes of Thundercloud, the subject represents a nationally known figure who had been painted by artists from around the world.
Finally, there is the representation of the friend. An emotionally loaded situation, where the subject is represented by the feelings the artist has for the person. Most notable in this category is the painting of Walter Budan, painted by John Mielcarek. The painting was made in honor of a friend who has died. The subject does not know what the results will be, but the artist is motivated by his memory and desire to memorialize.
The Burchfield Penney Art Center’s collection is focused on the art and artists of Western New York. Because of this, it spans only a small fraction of the time that artists have been making portraits. This means an historic portrait exhibition would not contain centuries old paintings of kings and queens, but rather the people who were a part of our community. When curating this exhibition, however, the criteria was that the artist and the subject have died. This provided a final understanding of portraiture, that of the historic record.