Preserving History: Significant Portraits at the 2018 Winter Antiques Show

In centuries past, posing for a portrait was a luxury mainly reserved for the ruling class. During the Imperial Roman era, marble busts of emperors and their wives represented their triumphs and stood as an eternal symbol of their status and power. This practice is echoed in monarchical portraits in Europe and extends to images of political leaders across the world today. In the United States, it is a great honor to be chosen to paint a portrait of the President that will hang in the White House alongside their predecessors. 

With the development of the middle class, portrait commissions outside the nobility became more common.  Many artists made it their mission to showcase modern life and, with it, images of ordinary people.

This year, during the 24th edition of the Winter Antiques Show in New York City, 70 vetted dealers and galleries are presenting art from around the world and centuries past. Many of the displays feature portraits that exemplify the significance and breadth of the genre. Furthermore, the Winter Antiques Show is hosting a loan exhibition from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts entitled Collecting for the Commonwealth/Preserving for the Nation: Celebrating a Century of Art Patronage, 1919-2018. The theme of this exhibition signifies the importance of history, a note reiterated across the booths at this year’s fair.

The Winter Antiques Show takes place from January 19th to 28th at the Park Avenue Armory. Below, see some of the historically significant portraits that struck our Invaluable editors as we explored this year’s gallery and dealer presentations.

Marble Portrait Bust of Antoninus Pius

Roman Marble Portrait Head of Antoninus, 2nd Century AD. Rupert Wace Ancient Art, London, UK (Booth #54).

This marble bust depicts Antoninus Pius, the Emperor of Rome from 138 to 161. He served under Emperor Hadrian for many years and eventually succeeded him as leader of the Empire. Following a successful military campaign in Scotland early on, from which emerged the Antonine Wall, Rome remained at peace during the rule of Antoninus.

Portrait of King Henri Christophe

Haitian School, “Portrait of King Henri Christophe of Haiti (1767-1820) with his Wife and Daughter,” oil on canvas, circa 1811. Alexander Gallery, New York City, NY (Booth #34).

King Henri Christophe was the first and only King of Haiti. Born a slave, Christophe rose to prominence during the Haitian Revolution from 1791 to 1804. He reigned as king from 1807 to 1811, amassing power into a strict autocratic rule. Images of Christophe are rare, but he is often depicted standing in grandiose, Napoleonic poses.

Portraits of the Founding Fathers

Left: A bust of Benjamin Franklin after a cast by Jean-Jacques Caffieri, painted plaster, circa 1777; Center top: Portrait miniature of President George Washington in the manner of Walter Robertson, oil on copper, circa 1799; Center bottom: James Sharples, Portrait of George Washington, pastel on paper; right: John Adams-Acton, A Marble Bust of George Washington, marble, 1860. Alexander Gallery, New York City, NY (Booth #34).

Many portraits of the Founding Fathers are reminiscent of classical images from Ancient Rome. Though George Washington was often a reluctant portrait-sitter, over time he grew more patient. Images of American icons like Ben Franklin, Paul Revere, and Washington created both during and after their lifetimes are popular among collectors as a reminder of patriotism and the ideals upon which the United States was built.

Renaissance Portrait of Maria de’ Medici

Scipione Pulzone (called Il Gaetano), Portrait of Maria de’ Medici, later Queen of France, oil on canvas, 1594. Robert Simon Fine Art, New York City, NY (Booth #56).

Italian Renaissance painter Scipione Pulzone is known for his classic, refined portraits. This painting of Maria de’ Medici, who later married King Henry IV of France to become Queen of France, was painted when the sitter was 21 years old. In the work, the artist created a picture within a picture, revealing that the lady is a painted image by overlaying draping fabric in the form of a curtain.

Portraits by John Singer Sargent

Left: John Singer Sargent, “Lawrence Barrett,” oil on canvas, 1890; Top right: John Singer Sargent, “Flora Priestley, Lamplight Study,” oil on canvas, c. 1889. Adelson Galleries, New York City, NY (Booth #8).

John Singer Sargent was one of the most renowned artists of his generation.  Creating iconic images of Madame Pierre Gautreau and Isabella Stewart Gardner, among others, a portrait by Sargent was a symbol of status and a social achievement. Adelson Galleries is showcasing several Sargent portraits at the Winter Antiques Show this year. On the left is one of American stage actor Lawrence Barrett, painted a year before Barrett’s death. On the top right is a portrait of Sargent’s close friend, Miss Flora Priestley. Her dark hair and pale complexion is mirrored in many of Sargent’s preferred sitters.

Photographs of Frida Kahlo

Nickolas Muray, Portrait of Frida Kahlo, color carbon print, 1939. Throckmorton Fine Art, Inc, New York City, NY Booth #42).

Artist Frida Kahlo was often photographed by friends and visitors. In this case, the photographer was a friend and romantic partner of Kahlo. Images of Kahlo on display at Throckmorton Fine Art’s booth are hung next to pre-Columbian artifacts. Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera were massive collectors of pre-Columbian works; Rivera eventually created a museum in Mexico City, the Museo Diego Rivera Anahuacalli, to house the thousands of pre-Hispanic objects they owned.

Portraits of American Life

Top left: Winold Reiss, “‘Montana Red’ Shy,” pastel on Whatman board, circa 1931; Bottom left: Winold Reiss, “Blackfeet Girl (Sacred Bird Woman, Pauline Running Crane, Natoyepekzaki), pastel on Whatman board, 1943; Right: Cecilia Beaux, “Mrs. John Frederick Lewis and Her Son, John Frederick Lewis Jr., 1908,” oil on canvas. Hirschl & Adler, New York City. NY Booth #39).

A new exhibitor to the Winter Antiques Show this year, Hirschl & Adler is displaying many intriguing portraits. The two on the left are by German-American artist Winold Reiss, who became captivated with Native Americans after emigrating to the United States in 1913. On the right is a mother and son sitting for Cecilia Beaux, an American portraitist inspired by John Singer Sargent.

Images of Medea by Leonard Baskin

Left: Leonard Baskin, “Medea VII,” watercolor, gouache, and ink on white paper, 1981; Right: Leonard Baskin, “Medea,” bronze. Galerie St. Etienne, New York City, NY (Booth #65).

Works by American sculptor, printmaker, and illustrator Leonard Baskin are displayed at Galerie St. Etienne’s booth alongside works by American folk artist Grandma Moses. While not technically portraits, Baskin gave life to the myth of Medea in many different media throughout his career. Medea, a character, from classical mythology who used magic to help her future husband Jason defeat his enemies, represented the inherent duality of justice and revenge to Baskin and appealed to him as a strong woman in a male-dominated world.