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 Family, 1801-02. 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 Family, 1990. 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 Daughters, 2002. 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.