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A portrait can be either the work of a skilled artisan or the pinnacle of artistic expression. It ranges in value from a few dollars for a carnival sketch to countless millions for the work of a Great Master. Few artists ever master the human face and figure, and they often resort to abstractions in style or the employment of unusual materials to be successful, falling into the same ambiguity of aesthetics that sentenced the abstract expressionists in the 1960s.
Modernism exploited artistic freedom, but to what end? The intent was to go beyond creating a mere likeness of a person, a representation of a person’s identity, which is the person often sought by the viewer, and to search for the subject under the identity, the person within. The unfortunate result was not the revelation of the inner self but the outer self, the person for and before the image of his or her self. It was the artist’s view and this transformation alienated. The problem that these views are of the same person has plagued philosophers for two-and-a-half millennia. It is this imperious desire to let the medium dictate—as if the paint itself were painting the canvas, forsaking the in-itself for the for-itself—that allows the abstract artist to prevail.
The true portrait is more than the bravado of the artist. In place of the external appearance of the person—his or her identity—the true portrait attains an identity wholly its own. It is the guarder of the image in the absence of the person, regardless of whether this absence is from distance or death. It is the presence not of the person, but of the person’s absence, and the portrait artist has the responsibility to reproduce a resemblance, with evoking a presence, in manifesting an image in which the person’s presence is felt and maintained, even beyond death. It is not a death mask or an imprint of death, but death at the very heart of life. It is the departure of the in-itself, the person’s inner self, the person’s “soul” from the pigmented plant oils spread on weaved cotton, the painting. The true portrait clarifies the person, creates a resemblance unadulterated by chance, shock, or amorality. As such, it is an absence of secular standing, a resemblance only of itself. In the absence of the person, it withdraws into itself and creates a presence that it puts before the viewer, a presence that is capable of an interiority solely due to the challenge of its exteriority, the talent of the artist. That a viewer can become intimate with a flat surface that has no real interiority reflects not an illusion but the nature of human existence itself—sameness (I) and otherness (me) in a single consciousness.