The study of how an individual feature reflects a person’s soul, spirit, or personality is an old concern of artists. However, it is only at the end of the 19th Century and the turn of the 20th Century, with the advent of modern psychology, that artists became more cautious of physiognomic analysis. How can one forget Géricault’s powerful portrait of a kleptomaniac in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent or Van Gogh’s painting of an old French peasant, Patience Escalier, from a private collection last exhibited at the great "Van Gogh in Arles" exhibition at the Met in 1984? Let’s recall Gertrude Stein’s portrait in which many friends had complained to Picasso that it doesn’t at all look like her. Picasso’s famous remark was: "In the end she will manage to look just like it." And she did.
Perhaps, in the light of contemporary portrait painting, the issues of working from life should be readdressed, not because it is irrelevant or unfashionable to the current taste, especially when mechanical reproduction and the manual virtuosity have created the possibility hybrid quotations and all sorts of superficial readings of past art.
The works of Elizabeth Josephson, in spite of their obvious kinship with Oskar Kokoschka, Willem de Kooning or Alice Neel, seems to utterly stand alone on the other side of the track of this particular genre. While lacking the sureness of the painterly eloquence of the artists she admires, Josephson proposes a beautiful option— the resonance of her own vulnerability. In this case, it becomes her strength rather than her weakness. However slow in speed and deliberate in building the subtlety of tones or quickening of pace in becoming more spontaneous, one can find in two of her works, Janice and Ethan and Margerete, that Josephson’s handling of paint has a poetic infelicity yet it feels genuine and not overbearing with unedited form. The work in general invites a psychological response rather than a pictorial critique. I wonder, however, if the later would be an impediment to the artist’s growth?
TOMASSIO LONGHI is a contributor to the Rail.