Profiling Portraits: Posing for the Artist

In this entry in the occasional series where we look at portraits in the collections, I found myself, as always, fascinated by the process that creates an image, and wanting a peek into the story behind the portrait. In this case, I found examples of subjects sitting for an artist as the artist painted the person’s portrait, and I immediately started studying the artist’s tools, comparing the subject to the portrait, and noting any interesting features about the scene. In almost every example, the photo is likely a staged one to show the finished work, but some make the effort to appear as ‘in the moment’ as possible.

While this wasn’t the first example I spotted, it’s one of the few I found where the subject is smiling. I would love to know who this grinning banjo player is!

[Artist painting man with banjo]

[Artist painting man with banjo]. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1924 or 1925. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.44743

A pair of women artists caught my attention in the next two examples. First we have Edith McCartney, who has her hands full, having done what appears to be a pastel portrait of both Sistie Dall, and likely her brother, Buzzie, in the portrait sitting on the floor. These two had pretty famous grandparents: President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

SISTIE DALL POSES FOR PORTRAIT BY MISS McCARTNEY.

SISTIE DALL POSES FOR PORTRAIT BY MISS McCARTNEY. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1933. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.46956

In the next example American painter Emily Nichols Hatch is working in a highly decorative studio, with likely some other examples of her work leaning on the floor behind the easel. Hatch may have been the focus of the photo, as the name of the subject was not recorded in the original caption.

Emily Nichols Hatch painting __ portrait. Photo by Bain News Service, between ca. 1920 and ca. 1925. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.34203

The next photo features the artist, Antoine Lumière, both a painter and early figure in photography in France. He is perhaps best known as the father of the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, who played a significant role in the development of motion picture technology.

Antoine Lumière [painting portrait of posing man].

Antoine Lumière [painting portrait of posing man]. Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1905. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b26147

American painter, illustrator and World War I poster artist Gerrit A. Beneker poses here with the model for the worker featured at left in the design for this World War I poster, “Partners for Victory.” Though it is clearly a photo staged after the fact, the unnamed worker has made the effort to match his pose in the poster.

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF LABOR. MODEL WITH WWI POSTER.

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF LABOR. MODEL WITH WWI POSTER. Photo by Harris & Ewing, between 1914 and 1920. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.20603

Well-known figures were the more common subjects of painted portraits, and you can find numerous examples of political leaders, judges, and entertainers, for example. Here we have sitting Vice President John Nance Garner and Second Lady Mariette “Ettie” Garner posing with their just finished portraits.

Vice President and Mrs. Garner pose for portraits. Washington, D.C., April 20. Seymour M. Stone, American artist, puts the finishing touches on the portraits of Vice President and Mrs. John N. Garner which he has recently completed. Artist Stone painted the two portraits in two weeks.

Vice President and Mrs. Garner pose for portraits. Washington, D.C., April 20. Seymour M. Stone, American artist, puts the finishing touches on the portraits of Vice President and Mrs. John N. Garner which he has recently completed. Artist Stone painted the two portraits in two weeks. Photo by Harris & Ewing, [19]39 April 20. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.26520

This last peek at an artist with his portrait work does also include the subject, though it is not immediately evident. Artist J. M. Williamson poses with his possibly unfinished portrait of German-American photographer Arnold Genthe. It appears Genthe not only wanted to snap the photo of the scene himself, but appear in it, too. If you look quite closely at the mirror behind Williamson, the rather hazy figure of the photographer is visible – the white spots are the hands holding a large camera.

 J.M. Williamson painting a portrait of Arnold Genthe. Photo by Arnold Genthe

J.M. Williamson painting a portrait of Arnold Genthe. Photo by Arnold Genthe, 1915. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/agc.7a09326

Learn More:

  • No single search returns more examples of the types of images shared above, but thinking creatively will garner more results. Feel free to try exploring further in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog with keywords and phrases that might appear in the descriptive captions and titles, such as: sitting for portrait, posing for, artist painting, portrait paintings and so on.
  • Read a previous Picture This post about the making of a World War II poster created from portrait photographs from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information of a steelworker, as well as servicemen from the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army in A Poster Comes to Life.
  • Revisit the other entries in the Profiling Portraits series in Picture This.
  • Sneak A Look Inside Creative Spaces and Studios through another blog post where we stepped inside the artist’s world.

Revisiting Rights-Free: Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Color Photographs

The Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information (FSA/OWI) color photographs provide a vivid glimpse into life in the United States from 1939 to 1945 — a period more often viewed through a monochromatic lens. If you are familiar with the FSA/OWI photographs at the Library of Congress, chances are that the first images that come […]

A Small Texas Town on a March Afternoon in 1940

The following is a guest post by Mary Jane Appel, photo historian and author of the recently published Russell Lee: A Photographer’s Life and Legacy (Liveright, in association with the Library of Congress, 2021). When Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographer Russell Lee drove through the small town of San Marcos, Texas on a sunny afternoon […]

Behind the Scenes: Arranging and Describing Visual Resources

The following is an interview with Maya Reid, Technical Services Technician in the Prints & Photographs Division. Melissa: Could you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to work in the Prints & Photographs Division? Maya: I majored in English as an undergraduate student and didn’t know what I wanted to […]

Celebrating Artists’ Portraits at the Library of Congress for African American History Month

The following guest post is by Katherine Blood, Curator of Fine Prints, Prints & Photographs Division In honor of African American History Month, this gathering of extraordinary individual and group portraits by contemporary artists features works that speak of community, family, and the envisioned past, present, and future. Nelson Stevens’s vibrant screenprint called Spirit Sister, […]