Jennifer R. Welty Portraits

"One of America's Top Award-Winning Portrait Artists"

The High Art of Family Portraits

By Katherine Morais

Commissioning a family portrait is a rite of passage for wealthy folks, practiced pretty much throughout the history of civilized man, back to the days when Egyptian pharaohs and their kin immortalized their god-like status on the walls of palaces and temples. The portrait announces to the world, “Here we are, our family, at this point in time and history.”

Penta has provided advice on the dos and don’ts of commissioning a family portrait, which we think is a very fine use of money. But if you are on the brink of commissioning an artist, we recommend first seeking inspiration from some of world’s greatest family portraits, so you can give the artist some broad principles they should keep in mind while bringing your family’s likeness alive. Here, five of our favorites:

Portrait of Rutger Jan Schimmelpennick and his Family1801-02. By Pierre Prud’hon 

Credit: Rijks Museum, from the Rijksstudio collection.

This classic portrait of the Jan Schimmelpennick family, painted by Pierre Prud’hon, currently hangs in the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam, Holland. When this portrait was painted in the early 19th century, Rutger Jan Schimmelpennick was an up-and-coming Dutch politician who was Ambassador to France and gaining the respect of Napoleon.  This family portrait is most notable for what it is not. At the time, portraits of powerful families romantically idealized their subjects, but Pierre Prud’hon has captured elegant perfection without lavish symbols of wealth or exaggerating Rutger Jan Schimmelpennick’s masculinity. Though the portrait strictly conforms to classic composition, the family appears natural, relaxed, and quietly exudes contentment. The family members are all attractive, with willowy bodies and pearly-white skin. The mother cocks her head, with the same idle satisfaction as her son, while placing her arm behind her husband, in a gesture of support. Rutger Jan Schimmelpennick appears as a contemplative intellectual, with a book in his lap. The youngest daughter, meanwhile, is the only member of the family to have a concrete focus to her gaze, which is her father. It’s a beautiful family portrait, exuding worldly privilege without any hint of arrogance or self-importance.

L’atelier de Schuffenecker, 1889. By Paul Gauguin

Credit: RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

This painting by Paul Gauguin, hanging at the Musee D’Orsay, does not capture a content family, quite the opposite, but we include the work for its extraordinary ability to capture family dynamics – the sign of a great family portrait. Emile Schuffenecker, the painting’s subject, was a minor impressionist, who should be the focus of his own studio, but Gauguin pushes him off to the side, where he stands meekly by his easel. In the center of the painting sits the impressionist’s wife and children, and Schuffenecker is intently watching his wife with an expression that suggests he is seeking her approval. His wife, meanwhile, is the largest and most domineering person in the room, her distorted and oversized body both hovering above the floor and engulfing the space. Their children sit obediently by her feet; one mimics the pose and expression of the mother, while the other curls submissively in a fetal pose. Louise Schuffenecker appears as an overbearing wife and mother, and there is something touching about Schuffenecker’s position in the corner, his hands wringing with his desire to please his wife and family. So a little sad, yes, but also a family portrait that feels authentic and leaves a deep impression.


Family Portrait of Lamorna Birch and Daughters, 1916-33. By Dame Laura Knight

Credit: University of Nottingham/The National Portrait Gallery.

Dame Laura Knight’s Family Portrait of Lamorna Birch and Daughters – part of the University of Nottingham’s collection and recently displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in London – is a beautiful painting and an accurate reflection of the Birch family. The father, Lamorna Birch, stands to the left in the beautiful setting of Lamorna Valley, and his large stance asserts his importance in his family and in his namesake valley. He clutches his younger daughter in one arm, while grasping the branch of the tree that his older daughter sits in. He seems to be the only one enthusiastic about sitting for the portrait; his daughters, both brimming with character, are clearly defiant. But the children’s rebellion is rendered playfully, with one in a tree, and the other being held like a rascally pet dog. Lamorna Birch was an artist himself, a contemporary of Knight, and painted the valley as well. His virile stance is both relaxed and powerful, with his disproportionately large lower half giving him a slightly clownish and playful appearance. Knight’s brush strokes blend the family and valley together, to emphasize the setting as both the family’s home and Birch’s artistic subject and inspiration. The vibrant colors and glorious light do not only render the valley as an ideal, but also reflect the fantastical world of the children, who see the magic in their natural playground. Any art collector would want to buy this piece, and yet it also sweetly captures one family’s personal story.

Sleeping Family1990. By Vincent Desiderio

Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This contemporary painting at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, titled Sleeping Family,provides an amusing alternative to the traditional and staged family portraits. The subjects ofSleeping Family are both oblivious of the viewer and literally unconscious. The voyeuristic nature of the painting is highlighted not only by the families’ vulnerable sleeping state, but also through the exposure of the father’s hairy chest and bare stomach. This could be any family, but the details of father and mother identify them as a specific family. Though each have their individual sleeping space, and no one touches the other, the baby mimics her mother’s sleeping position and turns to her father, to unify the trio. The painter, Desiderio, has brilliantly captured a tight-knit family on canvas, immortalizing an ordinary moment in a family’s life in a way that suggests great intimacy.


The Daughters2002. By Tina Barney

©Tina Barney, courtesy Janet Borden, Inc., NY

Modern mediums and modern families can reinvent the family portrait in startling ways. The Daughters is a work found in a series of photographs called “The Europeans,” by the contemporary American photographer Tina Barney. In this case, the lavish-decorated background provides a beautiful foil to the vibrantly dressed subjects of the portrait. The family has three daughters and the youngest is the focus of the composition, the mother fussing over her in the foreground, while the other members hover in supporting roles in the background. The youngest daughter’s expression is somewhat vain, as she receives the attention both of her mother and the camera, while also standing proudly in her brightly-colored outfit. The shy older daughter, in her conservative white and blue attire and standing by her father, blends almost entirely into the background. The daughters exemplify the psychology of their birth order, with the awkward eldest lost in the background; the middle child trying to assert herself in the middle; and the strutting youngest at the center of attention. The mother is attractive in her ”look at me” dress that reveals a skeletal chest. Though she cares for her daughter, her pose is flashy and overdramatic, like she is mid-step in a dance routine. The conflict in the foreground is between the mother giving the daughter her attention and her own desire to be the star of the portrait. While it’s understandable why you might not want such revealing insights about your family on public display, the point of this exercise is to demonstrate how the best family portraits capture both human psychology and the glamour and beauty of the successful family.

Penta’s take: While the family portrait has, over the centuries, developed its own conventions, we think the slightly offbeat family portraits are most successful in conveying the complexities of family life – and generally wind up as the most memorable and stunning works of art. That’s something to consider if you want a serious painting and true likeness of your family, not just a chocolate box cover.

"Why Invest in a Portrait?"

   In today’s world of readily available  and affordable photography, people often ask, “why would I want to spend so much to have my portrait painted?”

     For several generations, Southerners have known what West Coasters are just discovering: that a painted portrait is a treasured possession that family members love to inherit, and treasure forever. A painted portrait almost has a life of its own.

    A painted portrait is not just a collection of data burned onto some film, it is an interpretation of one’s very being, filtered through the eyes and skills of an artist who takes the time to study and deeply observe his subject. 

   A painted portrait affirms the precious value that the sitter has in this world. It says, “You are  of incredible worth, you mattered, you made a difference in this world just by being.” It reminds one of their eternalness, as humans bear the  unmistakable image of their Creator.

   A painted portrait affirms the sitter as it says to all who view it, “This person I cherished”. It confirms the benefactor’s desire  to never let the sitter’s influence be erased from the tide of his personal history.

   A painted portrait only increases in its value. It doesn’t rust away and depreciate like so many material objects, because not only does it capture a loved one for a moment in time, but it cheats Time’s ability to steal away our memories. And we are left with an image which seems to change daily, almost having a living, breathing quality as it lives in the room in which it is hung, changing by the moment as the light plays across the artist’s brushstrokes at different times of the day. We are intrigued by what the artist saw as he studied his subject and sought to interpret his observations: did the artist reveal something the sitter thought to be carefully hidden? Did he bring to light a strength of character of which the sitter was too modest to boast? Did he in some way capture a bit of his sitter’s soul on canvas?

   To live with art is to be changed. It is unpredictable, often surprising, and it stirs our imaginations, lifting them above the realm of ordinary interpretation.

   A painted portrait is a small price to pay for a place in history.

   Jennifer Welty


A Portrait captures a moment in time 

A Portrait captures a moment in time 

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