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At the turn of the twentieth century, portraiture was negotiating dramatically new artistic and intellectual territory. Psychological and scientific explorations of the late nineteenth century altered assumptions about human motivations and character, questioning notions of a fixed, externally-evident identity. In reaction, the definition of a portrait began to stretch, bend, and transgress its traditional boundaries. Nonvisual "portraits" in prose, poetry, and music by Gertrude Stein, E. E. Cummings, and Virgil Thomson inspired artists to explore new ways of representing the spirit of the individual. The experimental principles that underlay these radical approaches would influence portraiture for the rest of the century.


New ideas for portraiture intersected with investigations of individual identity in philosophy, psychology, science, and religion. Sigmund Freud, William James, and Henri Bergson, among others, were exploring the nature of the self. Charles Darwin's theories had emphasized genetic predisposition, further undercutting established notions of consciously directed moral character. One could no longer presume a static, discernable identity. Questions about the status of the self within a mechanistic world thus preoccupied many modernist artists and writers. The psychological state of both artist and subject also figured into portraiture. Generations of artists were influenced by such thinking. African-American artist Beauford Delaney summarized decades of friendship and his own fragile emotional health in a compelling 1963 portrait of James Baldwin.
James Baldwin
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On the heels of new discoveries about the individual and the self, painters began probing beyond physical representation, searching for psychological truth or emotional sensation. Marius de Zayas sought to synthesize the body and the spirit in "abstract caricatures" such as his image of journalist and art patron Agnes Meyer. Although abstract and symbolic portraiture would remain a minor vogue until its rediscovery in the 1980s and 1990s, experiments that searched beyond likeness for the essence of character inspired portraitists throughout the century.
Agnes Meyer
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