The portrait and the nude are generally considered distinct and separate genres within pictorial art. The nude is rarely a depiction of a particular person; rather, it is usually generalized or idealized, used to depict eroticism or heroism, struggle or abjection, joy or disgust as universal phenomena. The portrait is about conveying the essential character of an individual. Historically, the line separating these subjects was rarely breached, except in the occasional portrait of a mistress. Alice Neel and Lucian Freud both made highly individualized depictions of nudes, but they’re outliers. In contemporary art, the body is still nearly always de-individualized and even depersonalized, used as a symbol or provocation.
The realistically observed portrait has been a staple of art since the Greeks and Romans, but of all the classic genres it has been the most challenged by the rise of photography and the most marginalized by the conceptual turn of contemporary art. To me portraiture remains a compelling pursuit. I believe a drawing or painting captures a subjective reality that photographs often miss, and the essence of a person is a rich and complex subject to tackle.
The nude portrait became one of my own primary genres simply because, many years ago, I was asked to be the monitor, or session supervisor, for a weekly three-hour nude pose at Spring Studio. This isn’t the class I would have chosen to run, as I was more interested in quick poses and movement than in long poses and academic rendering. Nevertheless, learning to sustain my focus and to develop drawings through a longer process was a great learning experience.
Minerva Durham, the proprietor of Spring Studio, favors models who have unique character, and that surely helps keep it interesting for the more advanced artists. When you draw from life as a regular practice for years, after a time you struggle more with boredom and the rut than you do with form and proportion. Drawing endless generic nudes could get a bit dry, but if you try to perceive and capture the specialness of each model, it remains much more interesting.
The face and the body both show us something about the person’s character and life experience. The face is the window to the soul but also the public mask of self-presentation. In the body we see how the energy flows and rests. The body also conveys a great deal about the subject’s attitude and way of relating to the world.
Nude portraits are nearly impossible to sell in a gallery show. People love these pictures, but no casual collector wants a recognizable picture of a nude individual hanging in their home – even if it is themselves. People have often commissioned me to do nude portraits of them, and they love the resulting pictures but have difficulty deciding where – or if – they should hang them! But since I have always supported myself by other work in order to keep my art free from the dictates of the marketplace, I don’t mind that the work is unsellable.
The division separating the nude from the portrait may exist because of market realities, rather than because of any deeper reason. But the combination, the nude portrait, represents to me a reunification of the primal split in the human soul, our loss of connection with our physicality and our earthly nature. Technology has allowed us to separate ourselves more and more from Nature, which is our origin and on which we are utterly dependent whether we realize it or not. Only our own bodies can reassert this primal symbiosis. A portrayal of face and body as one is a small statement of the unity of spirit and matter.
All portraits in this post were made in the last six months during the Monday morning long pose session I monitor at Spring Studio. All are aquarelle crayon on paper. Sizes range from 18″ x 24″ to 20″ x 28″.