Exhibition at Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg spotlights compelling portraits
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Exhibition at Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg spotlights compelling portraits
Martha Miller (American, born 1954), The Artist’s Daughters (1987). Pastel on paper. Collection of Robert Flynn Johnson.

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA.- Contemplating Character: Portrait Drawings & Oil Sketches from Jacques-Louis David to Lucian Freud is the most expansive exhibition of portraits ever presented at the Museum of Fine Arts. It opens on Saturday, February 13, and continues through Sunday, May 29.

This fascinating exhibition features 152 rare portrait drawings and oil sketches from the late eighteenth into the twenty-first century, with most from the nineteenth. Artists from 15 countries are represented, with a large number from France and England.

Lucian Freud, one of our time’s most provocative portrait painters and the grandson of the pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, once noted: “I’ve always wanted to create drama in my pictures, which is why I paint people. It’s people who have brought drama to pictures from the beginning. The simplest human gestures tell stories.”

The works are drawn from the remarkable collection of Robert Flynn Johnson, Curator Emeritus, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. He has written: “I am fervently drawn to the vast variety of depictions of human beings in their grandeur, helplessness, pride, and vulnerability. Every drawing in this exhibition has moved me deeply in some way, and it is both my conviction and hope that individuals who view this exhibition will make a similar connection and feel the presence of the personalities represented who have been drawn and painted over the last two centuries.”

In addition to David and Freud, Mr. Johnson has selected such noted artists as Théodore Rousseau, Edgar Degas, Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, Elie Nadelman, Frank Stella, and George Bellows, to name a few. Four drawings are by Adolf von Menzel, whose name may be unfamiliar to many Americans. He was one of Germany’s most admired artists working in the nineteenth century. Degas called him “the greatest living master.”

In an expressive drawing, Menzel treats his right hand as a portrait, which he drew with his left. Maximilien Luce, imprisoned for his anarchist political views, depicts his hand pressing against the wall of Mazas Prison. Brassaï focuses on The Hands of Matilda, Paris 5 April 1949.

All challenge our conception of the portrait. So, too, do Henry-Bonaventure Monnier’s watercolor, Self-Portrait Dressed as a Woman (1869), Aubrey Vincent Beardsley’s fanciful caricature of presumably the writer Oscar Wilde (1892), and Charles Henry Sims’ modernistic Self-Portrait in Distress (about 1928).

Not surprising for a curator, Mr. Johnson was drawn to artist self-portraits and portraits of artists. One of the former is by Dora Maar, a talented artist who shared a decade with Pablo Picasso. She sliced her self-portrait in two, a strong visual suggesting mental turmoil. Another is Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s unmistakable Self-Portrait Profile (around 1960), which introduced his popular TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents to millions of Americans.

There are two portraits of Jacques-Louis David, one while he was in prison. A supporter of the French Revolution, David was imprisoned after the fall of Robespierre and later found favor with Napoleon. There are others of the English Romantic poet-artist William Blake, American author Washington Irving, influential British critic-artist John Ruskin, French symbolist Odilon Redon, and the great American realist Thomas Eakins in silhouette.

The exhibition has many other gems, including a miniature portrait of George Washington (around 1795) by an anonymous artist and Bonnard’s Crying Woman (about 1890-1895), created in a flowing, seemingly spontaneous line. There are even drawings by the American cartoonist Robert Crumb, who developed a cult following for his countercultural comic books like Weirdo and who later received museum exhibitions.

A host of works capture family members, friends, and lovers in tender moments, and a number resonate with paintings in the Museum’s collection. Contemplating Character was organized by Mr. Johnson with Landau Traveling Exhibitions, Los Angeles, California, in association with Denenberg Fine Arts, West Hollywood, California.

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