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Artist Portraits: Homages to Greatness

With the turn of the 20th century and the rise of Modernism, artists became much more aware of the chronology of art history and their place within it. With this arose a genre that, if not altogether new, suddenly became more prevalent; artists creating portraits of other artists.

In fact, there are several examples of artist portraits in the May 20th paintings auction.  Each approaches his or her subject differently: some choose favorite artists or artists with whom they were intimately connected, while others choose to create images of “the greats” from art history.

A Portrait of Mantegna by Leonard Baskin

Leonard Baskin, Portrait of Andrea Mantegna

Lot 16: Leonard Baskin (American, 1922-2000) Andrea Mantegna, Italian, 1431-1506, from ETCHINGS OF TEN FAVORITE ARTISTS, 1962, Est. $300-500

Leonard Baskin created multiple series of artists’ portraits. Many of these were painters from the 19th century and before.  In his Andrea Mantegna (Italian, 1431-1506) of 1962, Baskin pays homage to the great Italian Renaissance master in the context of a series he titled ETCHINGS OF TEN FAVORITE ARTISTS.

While the energized and linear style of this etching and the cropped composition are all Baskin, he nonetheless approaches his subject in the form of a homage. The strict profile of the head is typical of early Italian Renaissance portraiture, and the red cap harkens to the color palette of that time, while staying true to Baskin’s own time.

Baskin’s choice to depict the artist Mantegna is also interesting, and indeed, typical.  This is clearly a very personal choice. This is one of HIS favorites; not necessarily a favorite of the art-loving community at large. Mantegna, though very important in his day, hardly has the celebrity of Raphael, Leonardo, or Michaelangelo. Mantegna is of an earlier generation, and indeed, set the groundwork for these later artists.

Baskin’s choice of the lesser known, but perhaps more influential artist, is an educated and considered one. No doubt this comes in part from his academic career — he began teaching at Smith College in 1953. At this same moment, while Fine Art trended towards Abstract Expressionism, Baskin remained rooted in representation and began exploring the techniques of the past, and those of woodcuts in particular.  Given this context, his interest in an artist of the past seems almost unavoidable.

Max Liebermann Depicted by Felixmüller

Conrad Felixmuller, Portrait of Max Liebermann

Lot 75: Conrad Felixmüller (German, 1897-1977) Bildnis Max Liebermann, 1926, Est. $1,000-1,500

Baskin’s source, at least in part, for a renewed interest in woodcut came from the works of the German Expressionists. Conrad Felixmüller’s woodcut Bildnis Max Liebermann of 1926 reflects this source. In the 1910s, Felixmüller was a regular contributor to Berlin’s Der Sturm (The Storm), a highly influential artistic and cultural journal of the day. Max Liebermann was of an earlier generation, and best known as a portraitist.

Felixmüller shows Liebermann in his studio. In his hands are a pencil and a sketchbook – perhaps the tools of the artist most likely to capture immediate inspiration. The studio should be a setting at which and artist is most at home, and most comfortable, yet the animated lines of Lieberman’s furrowed brow and drawn flesh of his eye sockets and cheeks create a tense and anxiety-ridden emotive quality typical of the German Expressionists. This too is a homage, but to Felixmüller’s teachers, rather than Baskin’s choice of an artistic ancestor.

The homage is an important aspect of understanding ourselves, whether we are artists, or lovers of art, and the understanding that today’s collectors have of art history has created a receptive audience for these portrayals. Which of these two portraits do you prefer? Is it due to the style of the creator or the choice of the sitter? What other homages to great artists do you love and why?

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