Over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal offered an essay on portraiture by Lee Siegal, the literary critic, the Elizabeth Peyton show is the pretext for this meditation but the essay ranges far beyond her work:
It was in the Romantic period that painters began to paint individuals simply because they were (often non-paying) friends or acquaintances. These were usually other artists or writers — Delacroix’s portrait of Chopin, for example. Only at the threshold of modernism did you get anything like portraits of an artist’s friends from other professions — a doctor or lawyer here, an influential art-dealer everywhere. Not to mention mistresses and lovers.
The introduction of the camera changed all that. As photography progressed, people could be portrayed not just as social types, but as individuals with names and contexts. (Consider Lewis Hine’s 1908 photograph, “Sadie Pfeifer, a Cotton Mill Spinner.”) Eventually, the speedy, accurate, portable Leica became to the portrait what representative democracy was to the nation-state. Now portraitists did not just have carte blanche to capture anyone they wished with their brush and palette. In order to compete with the camera’s populism, they had no choice but to paint people from all walks of life.
Painting Faces (Wall Street Journal)