By the time I was in fourth grade, I was aware of two – no, make that three – types of portraits: The kind my friend Millie describes as the ones with fuzzy-focused girls in white dresses in front of the azaleas; the boy with spaniel; and the art school sketch.
Like Millie, I always wondered why my parents didn’t contact one of the artists who advertised in Veranda and commission a painting. Most of my fellow Girl Scouts had been immortalized in pastel. And while my grandparents (on Mom’s side) weren’t big portrait patrons either, they did have a sculpted self-portrait made by my then-undergraduate-artist aunt. But Momo and Granddaddy didn’t quite have David Hicks’ flair for tablescapes, so somehow the bust ended up on top of their TV in the den.
Later I realized that women who lead cool lives always seem to have a bunch of great drawings given to them by artist boyfriends or pals. (Francoise Gilot being an ultimate example.) Recently, Mrs. Blandings toured a chic woman’s apartment where there was no shortage of sketches with interesting stories attached, you know, “Oh, so and so just did that by the pool.”
In her typical self-deprecating way, Mrs. Blandings claims that to date no one has been inspired to sketch her in any situation.
Millie's experience has been different. "Going to art school and being married to an artist, I actually have an embarrassing number of portraits of myself. They are mostly drawing exercises that I kept, though I have not had one hanging in years," she explains.
"I did just hang one that my husband sketched: Girl with Remote Control. It is only from my nose down and is a bit abstract, so it is not so obvious it is me."
Millie and her husband happen to have a nude by another artist (of a different woman) hanging in their living room. It's a really strong piece of art, but every guest that enters the house asks if it's Mille; she's thinking about taking that one down.
No, that's not January Jones above. When another Southerner, Mary Laura, was about 20, her parents commissioned something. "There is a portrait of me over the mantle in their library in Augusta, Georgia. It is life size. (Seriously, it looks like I am standing on the mantle.) I am not smiling in the portrait, and my natural facial features tend to default to a sort of serious, almost angry, expression. My dad calls it 'Firestarter' because my hair is sort of blowing back and I look like I might shoot flames out of my eyes at any moment," says ML.
Her brother calls it 'the shrine' because, "It's so darn huge and right there when you walk into the house." He thinks that the decorative urns and boxes sitting on the mantle look like they might contain her ashes.
[Francoise Gilot My Children in Brittany II, 1974, color lithograph.]
Still, Mary Laura appreciates these paintings, "I would love a portrait of me with my children and husband, capturing our collective youth. Having them in it would make it bearable to look at! And I know when I'm an old crone, I'll want to look back and see that I once had a single chin and only one set of bags under my eyes."
Millie says that for every unfortunate portrait she has seen, she's also seen a great one. She thinks living with them is kind of like driving a flashy car -- you either have the personality to work it or you don't. "To each his own." What do other Southern tastemakers and editors think of portraits in the home? Stay tuned for the personal experiences of Karen Carroll, Julie Miller, Angie Hranowsky, Lee Kleinhelter and others. To see related past posts, click the "portrait" label below.
Credits: Image one, design journalist Frances Schultz' mantle; Image two, Andrew Bucci oil on paper, circa 1950s; Images three and four, Francoise Gilot (portrait by Picasso) via Saper Galleries; Image five, Francesco Clemente portrait of Kelly Klein, via Town & Country, October 2008; Images six through eight courtesy Brilliant Asylum; Images nine, ten, and twelve courtesy Mary Laura and her gracious parents; Image thirteen, Muffie Faith's South Carolina house via Charleston Home. Photo by Brie Williams; Image fourteen, Suzanne Rheinstein's L.A. house as seen in Southern Accents. Photo by Tria Giovan.