Like a good conversation, it takes two to make a portrait. Something special arises when artists depict their sitters or, in the case of self-portraits, themselves. Many times, however, portraits initially are judged by their ability to capture and evoke a sitter’s likeness. Yet the mirroring capacity of portraiture constitutes just one facet of its power. In a successful portrait, likeness co-exists with something “other,” and the patterns of possibility visible within this “other” tell us a great deal. Surveying the history of portraiture, we see not only an album of individuals, but also an index of the ways we perceive and define the very notion of individuality.
Beginning with the Renaissance’s “rediscovery of Man,” Western culture experienced an explosion of increasingly illusionistic images depicting specific individuals. Rendering its subject eternal, the portrait became a means to immortality. The character of this immortality, however, derived more often than not from the sitter’s social position as conveyed in the idealized trappings of costume, pose, setting, and so on. The clothes, as the saying goes, made the man, or, as the case may be, the woman.
At the turn of the 20th-century, portraiture underwent another profound transformation. Photography’s so-called “scientific eye” helped propel art’s shift away from mimetic representation toward new formal possibilities. Portraits in turn showed themselves to be as much about artistic invention as visual reflection, with style increasingly rivaling subject. Yet modern portraits often serve as more revealing mirrors than the naturalistic portraits that preceded them. Captured on their surfaces—like portraits within portraits—are unmistakable traces of the artists who created them.
Multiple Identities presents over 30 works from the New York University Art Collection to explore the power and possibilities of portraiture. Conceived as a dialogue with the concurrent exhibition Mapping Sitting: On Portraiture and Photography, Multiple Identities offers a glimpse into the diverse character of NYU’s permanent holdings, and in so doing, itself serves as a portrait of the collection.