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The evolving themes of twentieth-century culture changed the look of portraiture as much as new aesthetic ideas or new clothing and hair styles. The presumption of static identity as well as established traditions of pose and gesture gave way to new fashions often influenced by popular culture and the developing mass media. Even stylistically conservative portraits often confronted their subjects in an exclusively twentieth-century way.


The new, technologically advanced celebrity culture had a significant impact on portraiture. As information about the famous became increasingly standardized by the national media, larger-than-life public figures emerged for everyone to emulate. From then on Americans consciously or subconsciously measured their own identities not only against real-life role models but also against constructed icons. Drawings such as Will Cotton's Frances Perkins spoofed the well-known characteristics of notable figures, in this case the secretary of labor's habitual hat, black dress, and pearls and her dominance in the male worlds of government and organized labor. The celebrity image was so presumed that looking beyond it became a conscious act of probing in Thomas Hart Benton's depiction of W. C. Fields, a movingly noncomic search for the man behind the character he played.
Frances PerkinsW.C. Fields
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Theatricality, personality, and adherence to new ideals of celebrity stardom became one mark of early twentieth-century portraiture. Many individuals, not just actors, understood, consciously or instinctively, the importance of dramatic flair. Performance, with all its artifice, became analogous to living life to the fullest. Portraitists often sought that glittering personality rather than more traditional characteristics. The dash and brio of the conté crayon in Harrison Fisher's Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald conjures up their soap-opera marriage, adventures, successes, and failures, all acted out in the glare of publicity. Everett Shinn, one of the most theatrically obsessed artists of his generation, depicted himself as the moody romantic—drawing on the cliché of the artistic, bohemian soul—and inscribed his pastel to a famous stage actress.
Zelda FitzgeraldF. Scott FitzgeraldEverett Shinn
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Twentieth-century portraitists often searched for an interior presence that was elusive, changeable, or compromised by external categorizations of race, gender, age, or social class. Enormous changes in roles for women, for instance, would be reflected in such portraits as William Zorach's Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose bold, assured pose suggests the sexual and intellectual independence of her emancipated generation. Racial awareness permeates the figurative work of artists such as Winold Reiss. The dignity, and creativity in such portraits of Harlem Renaissance figures as Countee Cullen counteracted racist notions of inferiority. Even issues of sexuality and the body, of major importance later in the century, find some precedence in an earlier, more guarded era. Gaston Lachaise's 1920s drawing of poet Hart Crane dancing nude is an exuberant celebration of the male body.
Edna St. Vincent MillayCountee CullenHart Crane
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Artists and intellectuals of the early twentieth century prized originality, wit, and entertainment of all forms. Vaudeville, theater, films, animated cartoons, advertising, and other forms of popular culture inspired artists more than ever. Humor, an often overlooked element of the modernist spirit, connoted a bohemian zest for life. Paolo Garretto's witty transformation turns violinist Fritz Kreisler into an anthropomorphic musical instrument. Al Hirschfeld's "Bojangles" Robinson borrows a cinematic point of view. Artists reinventing portraiture at midcentury were inspired by billboard advertising, television, photography, film, and popular culture. Figural art by Roy Lichtenstein, such as his Time cover of Robert Kennedy, drew inspiration from comic book action heroes.
Fritz KreislerBojangles Robinson
Robert Kennedy
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Photographic coverage of the famous, increasingly prominent in the periodical press after World War II, influenced portraiture in all other media. The direction and quality of light on the face or figure had always concerned portraitists, and many were now taking their cues from the photograhic images featured in fashionable magazines and gallery exhibitions. The dramatic lighting of Marius de Zayas's Paul Haviland, with its soft focus and spotlit head and hands, recalls the effects of the pictorialist photographers whose work the artist would have seen at Alfred Stieglitz's 291 galleries. Midcentury portraitists, experimenting with larger scale, magnified detail, and close-to-the-picture-plane cropping of a face, were influenced by Hollywood glamour photographs and movie close-ups.
Paul Haviland
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