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The art of portraiture, after thriving for generations at the forefront of the visual arts, rode a roller coaster of reputation in the twentieth century. First it was re-empowered as experimental, then discredited in an age of abstraction, and gradually rediscovered. But although portrait traditions were buffeted by new ways of thinking about art and the individual, artists never completely abandoned the figure; they continued to experiment. These drawings from the National Portrait Gallery's collections, dating from the 1880s to the 1980s, are adventurous, assertive, witty, or monumental. They all reflect modern themes and aesthetic concerns, confirming the vitality of twentieth-century portraiture.


Portraiture reflects the impact of changing human interactions and social realities in the modern world. Urban crowding, brighter interior lighting, increasing informality in interpersonal relationships, and other aspects of twentieth-century culture affected how we perceived each other. The bold "eye contact" of Edward Hopper's self-portrait, James Fitzgerald's John Steinbeck, or Don Bachardy's Christopher Isherwood engages the viewer, suggesting that artists and writers had a new self-consciousness of their roles as observers and recorders of modern life.
Edward Hopper John Steinbeck Christopher Isherwood
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The avant-garde art movements of the late nineteenth-century gave portrait artists a new stylistic vocabulary. As artists probed beyond physical likeness, searching for the inner essence, they employed such effects as distortion, stylization, flattened space, or a simplified, abbreviated line to suggest emotional or psychological nuances about the sitter. Pavel Tchelitchew used Cezanne-like planes of color to add depth of character to his quietly strong depiction of Alice B. Toklas. Hugo Gellert achieved a cubist monumentality in his image of Paul Robeson, through his faceting of the face and the zigzagging pattern of the hair. Ralph Barton updated El Greco's elongated facial depictions in his haunted self-portrait.
Alice B. Toklas Paul Robeson Ralph Barton
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