Frank Oriti, Armor, 2019

The painting of portraits has a long and storied history. For hundreds of years, artists have sought to capture likenesses on canvas. In a post-postmodern world, portraiture still has a role to play, but what is it exactly? In a world of selfie sticks and Instagram filters, people still seek out traditional painted portraits, but the status of these paintings in the world of fine art appears to have shifted. Portrait painters are often neglected in an art market that favors conceptual, political, or socially relevant work, or even abstraction. The art world is, or at least seems to be, much more focused on concept than on craft, and seems especially disinterested in portraiture. A recent example: FRONT and CAN Triennial both completely ignored realist portraiture. Meanwhile, Cleveland is home to many skilled working portrait artists. I wanted to hold a mirror up to the subject—to take a look at the status of portraiture in 2020.

I spoke to area artists who make commissioned portraits—including James Ruby, Judy Takács, Mark Giangaspero, Arabella Proffer, Frank Oriti, and John Sargent III—and asked them about some of the challenges they face. I wondered if they find it hard to be taken “seriously” in the art world as portrait painters, and if they had ever experienced any critical backlash for painting realistic portraits.

Professional portrait artist Mark Giangaspero explains: “The thing about being taken seriously in the art world is that commissioned works are not usually shown to the art world at large. I think the bigger problem lies in the fact that most ‘traditional portraits’ are done in a realist or representational way. Realism, representational, figurative painting is seen by a lot of art world folk as suspect, old-fashioned, and out of date.”

Judy Takacs, Venus, She’s Got It, 2018

Judy Takács agrees. She paints figurative work almost exclusively, as well as the occasional portrait: “It’s more a question of realistic figurative work being ignored by the contemporary art world. I have been rejected from many shows of ‘contemporary’ art.” John Sargent, an exceptionally skilled portraitist, echoed her thoughts, saying, “There has never been a critical backlash but rather an indifference and/or ignorance of the tastemakers.”

Arabella Proffer, Cat in Red

Painter Arabella Proffer explained: “My first experience with a backlash to portraiture was before I had even graduated from art school. My teachers, department heads, even the MFA students were appalled. And yet, I was literally selling these paintings off the walls of my final exhibitions to staff, other department instructors, and visitors while all the other exhibitions of installation art were getting the kudos.” She then noticed that, “the minute I started focusing on abstraction is when the reviews, grants, and residencies came easier.”

The making of a commissioned portrait often includes working with clients directly, which presents further challenges (especially in the age of Photoshop, where laugh lines can be erased instantly). Do the expectations of clients make working in portraiture difficult? Frank Oriti is probably the best-known portrait painter in the Cleveland area, and while painting portraits has a smaller role in his practice these days, his amazingly detailed realist works are still highly sought. When talking about clients, he told me, “I have had more commissions go well than anything else. Sure, I have a few stories, but even the ones that didn’t go as I would have planned were all taken on because there was an original interest in having a portrait painted. That is always a great place to start. I’ve learned the importance of communicating with clients and listening to what they want in their portrait. In the end, hopefully the client will have a piece that they will treasure and pass on to their family. I always find myself welcoming challenges in commissions that will turn into a fun and rewarding painting.”

John Sargent III, Fischer, 2018

John Sargent feels “the biggest challenges to doing a portrait are listening to the spoken and unspoken needs and wishes and aspirations of the client (making them a partner in the process), and giving them a very precise rendering, and not getting in the way while giving life to the subject. There have been instances where a potential client’s concepts work against better judgment, and instances where a client changes their mind in the middle of the process. As a matter of professional practices, there has been much to learn about human behavior and how to manage and avoid and preempt frustration for all parties.”

James Ruby, Minion

James Ruby, an incredibly skilled painter of custom dog portraits, had a truly positive view of his clients: “I have fifty to sixty different bosses a year. Interacting with clients is a favorite part of my job.” Ruby’s delightful paintings of dogs are technically stunning examples of portraiture, and have become the primary focus of his creative output. As he explained, “Portraiture is my life. While I look forward to finding the time to explore other subject matter in the next few years, knowing that my paintings are cherished in homes around the world is a legacy I’m proud of. I make a living and operate a business in Cleveland, Ohio, as a full-time painter. I’m pretty lucky.”

And that’s the thing about painting portraits—it can be a good source of income for an artist. Seeking out an artist to create a custom portrait doesn’t come cheaply. Some of the artists I spoke to mentioned that prospective clients often experience sticker shock at the cost, and don’t seem to understand the amount of time, talent, and dedication that is required to paint a portrait. Sargent pointed out that “there are exponentially more portraitists than paying clients,” making competition fierce.

And yet, many of these artists are busy with commissions. James Ruby explains on his website that due to the high volume of commissions he is currently undertaking, his exhibition schedule has had to be limited. And commissions for income allow some artists to pursue their other artistic projects. Arabella Proffer said that over the past ten years her practice has been divided: “abstraction for accolades and portraiture for survival.”

The sheer number of artists in Northeast Ohio who make portraits indicates that the practice is alive and well, including Sharon Pomales Tousey, Tricia Kaman, Robert Hartshorn, Stanka Kordic, Loren Naji—not to mention the Pretentious Cleveland Portrait Artists, headed by Timothy Herron, who meet weekly to create portraits from a live model. They have so many people who want to pose for them that they’re booking models for June.

The bottom line is that people are fascinated with their own images, and always will be. Whether or not the art world recognizes this work, many people still see the value of a traditionally-painted portrait. Judy Takács perhaps said it best: “Regular people seem to connect quite well with art that depicts people in a fairly realistic way. They get drawn in by the skill, giving compliments that make you bristle (‘It’s so good it looks just like a photograph’…ouch), but then, after stumbling over that one, they may connect with the people you’ve painted, bringing their own lives and experiences to the connection they’ve made. They are touched, make a friend, think hard and want to hear the story. And, when the art you loved creating, goes out in the world and finds someone who loves looking at it…and it also makes that person linger, connect and think…that’s the ultimate win-win.”