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[This article was originally published in The Portrait Signature]
Rembrandt, arguably the most famous portrait painter of all time, achieved phenomenal success very early in his career, and soon became a conspicuous fixture at auctions, buying expensive antiques and fine paintings by the great Masters who had preceded him. Criticized for such ostentatious display of his new-found wealth, Rembrandt replied that he did so in the interest of raising the prestige of his profession. This he accomplished, more so than perhaps any other artist before or since.
It was not through lavish spending, however, that Rembrandt managed to elevate the status of artists, but rather through the very quality of the art he created. His portraits and other works convey a degree of humanity and depth unprecedented in his day. The nobility of the artist is undeniable in these paintings. It is precisely that quality in Rembrandt’s work that brought Dutch painting to the degree of prominence previously enjoyed by the artists of Renaissance Italy, and added momentum to what they had begun. Artists had once been regarded as mere artisans, of the same social status as jewelers and sign painters. The best of them were now celebrities. This remained unchanged as long as the high standards of performance previously established were upheld.
The relevance of this is to point out the undeniable fact that the prestige of living artists declined in the latter part of the Twentieth Century, and to emphasize the importance of restoring it to what it once was. For the sake of the future of fine art painting, we must endeavor to reestablish the high standards of performance that existed from the Italian Renaissance to the heyday of the Nineteenth Century French academic painters, and do what we can to see that they are maintained into perpetuity. The turning of the century and of the millennium provides us with a unique opportunity to change things for the better. The last century has seen too much buffoonery and charlatanism represented as art, and the light in which artists are regarded has suffered mightily as a consequence. The public has grown tired of the now-transparent intellectual head game that promoted and sustained the curious notion that virtually anything could be considered art, and that the new standards of quality were understandable only to an elite few. Thus the time is ripe for a change. This is a new century. What remains is for us to provide a genuine quality product in the Twenty-First Century to supplant the poor excuses for art that dominated the limelight in the twentieth.
There must once again be a distinct meaning to the term, “artist.” It cannot be a point of pride if applied too liberally. We cannot expect others to respect it if we cannot distinguish ourselves from the average person by the quality of what we do, and by the seriousness and dedication with which we pursue our life’s work. Throughout most, perhaps all, of the last century, art students and aspiring artists were handicapped by the near-total absence of a system providing thorough training in the disciplines of art. As a consequence, the depth of knowledge once common among master artists has become more and more rare, and much harder to acquire than in former times. This presents a twofold challenge for artists of the present and future. The first objective must be to work very hard to fill whatever gaps may exist in our own knowledge as the result of incomplete training or of having acquired our educations piecemeal, and to strive to reach the highest levels ourselves. The second objective would be for those who have reached Master level to teach what they know to the next generation.
Returning to the first objective, the first steps in solving a problem are to recognize that one exists, and then to identify it. This is more easily said than done. It is difficult for artists who have achieved some degree of recognition to accept the notion that there might still be something lacking in their knowledge. How do we determine whether this is the case, and if so, in which area or areas of our work does the deficiency lie? Our friends may be too considerate of our feelings to tell us, even if they know. Other artists may perceive us as rivals, and not be truthful or objective in their assessments if asked, or they might simply be mistaken, or working from a position of personal prejudice. Still, one way or another, a determination must be made. The answer may lie in objectively assessing our own work as if it were the work of someone else. The ability to be totally objective when the situation requires it is essential to an artist. If we lack that ability, then working to develop it is a good place to start. If it is already part of our mental discipline, we may use it to determine whether or where any other weaknesses might be. Once we become aware of them, we can address them and overcome them, with sufficient diligence. If we know, or know of, someone who is strong in those areas, we might seek his or her advice. If we can study with someone from whom we can learn what we lack, it may be best to set pride aside and do it. There are now a number of schools, academies and ateliers in existence wherein students are taught the old-fashioned way, following more or less the methods of the 19th century French ateliers and/or earlier practices, with emphasis on the basics first. Many well-known artists also conduct workshops, which provide excellent opportunities to learn from them how they do whatever they do best.
It is of paramount importance for artists to possess depth of knowledge at least comparable to that of the best painters of the past, going well beyond the ability to render what we see accurately. A great deal of time should be spent in the museums, studying and analyzing the works of the greatest artists who ever lived, learning all we can from them, getting to know them through their paintings, looking at them objectively enough and critically enough to spot their weak points as well as their strengths. Every artist should spend time in Paris, with at least a week devoted to the Louvre alone. Paris is artists’ Mecca. Across the river from the Louvre is the Museé d’Orsay, devoted to Nineteenth Century French art; not to be missed. A long walk or a short ride from the Louvre is the Petit Palais, whose collection includes a Rembrandt and an excellent painting by Bouguereau, among many other magnificent works of art. It is less expensive to travel and the museums are less crowded in the off-season. A trip to Paris charges an artist’s creative batteries. It is impossible not to become a better artist after spending time in Paris. There are many great museums in the world, and it is of tremendous benefit to artists to visit them all. Perhaps “visit” is a misleading term, as it implies too brief a stay. One must spend a great deal of time in these museums, preferably alone or with other artists who share the same passions, to get the full benefit. There simply is no substitute for standing in front of the great paintings themselves and taking them in with one’s own eyes. Reproductions in books or on the web are not the same thing. It is worth making sacrifices to include these experiences in our artistic education, without which it cannot be sufficiently complete. Culture and art are inextricably tied to one another. Artists are at their best when on intimate terms with all aspects of both.
Returning to the central theme of this essay, we cannot realistically expect to restore the profession of art to its former glory by approaching it halfheartedly. Portrait painting cannot and should not be considered a separate, specialized field. A portrait painter, to be worthy of the respect and high esteem once afforded the greatest artists, must be first and foremost an artist, with all the heightened sensibilities properly associated with that distinction. The requirement goes light-years beyond the mere ability to copy a photograph with reasonable accuracy.
Art is a worthy endeavor; a noble endeavor. If we approach it as such, with all the reverence, respect and love for it that it so richly deserves, it cannot help but show in our work. Who among us would not wish to see fine painting restored to its former glory? What better time than now, the beginning of a new century and a new millennium, to bring about a long-overdue change? Let us not allow this unique opportunity to slip by us. We may never get another one like it.