Vancouver Art Gallery's Portrait of the Artist pulls some big names from the royal collection

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      At the Vancouver Art Gallery to February 4

      Portrait of the Artist opened in London, England, in November 2016. The first show to focus on the rich history of artists’ portraits and self-portraits in the Royal Collection, it was installed in the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace and accompanied by a handsome and illuminating publication. The works on view, spanning some 500 years, called forth a number of themes, including the increasing status of the artist in the Western world from the Renaissance forward and the growing desire by those with wealth and power to acquire depictions of these individuals, now deemed creators rather than mere artisans. The show also illustrated the shifting relationship between artist and collector, the use of self-portraiture as a tool of self-promotion, and the impact of photography on traditional portrait painting. Quite a hefty program.

      A smaller and somewhat diluted version of that exhibition is now on view at the Vancouver Art Gallery. The big names are here—from Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, and Rembrandt van Rijn to Lucian Freud and David Hockney—but not so much the big paintings. (In some instances, this has to do with the Royal Collection’s strict regulations about transporting the works.) Instead, we have some major paintings by minor artists and, with a few exceptions, drawings, prints, and photographs by major artists. Also on view are engravings and mezzotints done “after” original paintings.

      Still, there are enough interesting works in the VAG show to keep the viewer engaged. Among them are Dürer’s woodcut of himself and his friends in a bath house, with its strategically placed and obviously phallic water tap; a chalk drawing attributed to Annibale Carracci, filled with tender, teenage self-regard; Julia Margaret Cameron’s romanticized photograph of George Frederic Watts; and Hockney’s digitally deft self-portrait, created on an iPad.

      Francesco Melzi's Leonardo da Vinci.

      The very beautiful red chalk drawing of the elderly Leonardo by his pupil and companion, Francesco Melzi, was made between 1515 and 1519 and is described here as “the only reliable surviving portrait” of the great man. Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s black and white chalk drawing of himself, probably executed in the late 1670s, is a penetrating study of an old man calmly preparing himself for death. One of the most significant paintings here is of and by Sir Joshua Reynolds, created about 1788, again late in his life. The leading portrait painter of his time and place does not flatter himself, and the combination of round eyeglasses, curly white wig, and consternated expression gives him the appearance of a lost sheep. The exhibition catalogue describes this work as a depiction of “a man of intellect…capable of thinking great thoughts”. Hmm. The poor soul had lost much of his hearing and would, in the following years, become completely blind. Perhaps a lost sheep with only his thoughts to console him?

      The work that anchors the show (and its publicity campaign) is Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), created in the 1630s and presented to Charles I while the Italian artist was living in London. It is an inspired and virtuoso painting, although perhaps slightly misleading as representative: the show and the collection are (surprise!) overwhelmingly dominated by male artists. Still, as the curators point out, only a woman could have depicted herself as La Pittura, the allegorical and always female personification of painting. Happily, Gentileschi did not follow all the iconographic dictates of the time: she refused to render herself mute with a gag tied over her mouth (painting being an art that communicates to us without words). Instead, she shows herself with large hands, muscular forearms, and an expression of concentration, holding the tools of her art and poised to create. That Gentileschi was a survivor of rape—and of a torturous public trial of the crime—makes her self-portrait all the more powerful.