In 2018 Josh Comninellis, video production director of the American Angus Association, asked me to participate in a video that he and his team (Max Stewart and Ali Luety) were making about five people who were recognized as being very important, in a variety of ways, to the development of the Angus cattle breed. In character and accomplishments the five people differed in very significant ways, but there was a common thread in that each had been honored by having a portrait of themselves included in the prestigious Saddle and Sirloin Club headquartered in Louisville, KY. My connection to the five was that I was the artist commissioned to paint all of these portraits.
As part of the presentation I was to be interviewed to give my perceptions of these special livestock leaders, having come to know them in the process of painting their portraits. However as the project evolved my words played a major part in the narration and my involvement as the portraitist was used as the connecting link in telling their stories.
Even if you have never been curious about the livestock industry, you may find this video interesting simply because of the uniqueness of each personality and the experiences, passion and approaches each person profiled brought to their profession. As an artist I find it essential to understand those dimensions in order to create a satisfying portrait. So the video may also give you some insight into my thinking in approaching a portrait commission — the individual characters of the subjects, their lives, their achievements and the things that have motivated them are always my basis and inspiration.
The portrait was painted by the then famous portraitist Leon Bonnat (1833 – 1922), a French artist who studied in Spain and combined the methods and aesthetics of both the French and Spanish traditions. The portrait is especially interesting because it was left in a semi-finished stage clearly showing Bonnat’s painting process. While the artist was working on the portrait the sitter died tragically and the painting was never finished. The portrait was commissioned by Marshall Field I who was known as the mercantile king of Chicago, starting the Marshall Field Company that was the most prominent department store in the Midwest for over a century and a half.
Recently Marshall Field V decided the portrait, even in it’s unfinished state, should be hung with all the other Marshall Fields through the generations. He added a portrait of himself (see my portrait of him below—also included in the article).
I am sincerely gratified that my painting is in Mr. Field’s collection because of his reputation as an extremely knowledgeable connoisseur of classic American painting.
In addition to portraying cardinals, governors, prominent lawyers and doctors, and philanthropists, over the years Richard Halstead has created 23 paintings of the leaders of the American livestock industry. With Halstead paintings in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, state capitols and universities, Richard’s paintings are also part of an unusual special collection. Legendary breeders of beef cattle in Scotland in the late 18th century, outstanding early and modern educators in animal husbandry, and current leaders in livestock production have been honored by their induction into the collection of portraits of the nationwide Saddle & Sirloin Club.
Believed to be the world’s largest portrait gallery commemorating a single industry, the portrait collection was established at Chicago’s Union Stock Yards in 1903 and is a somewhat unexpected example of the tradition of portrait painting providing a compelling visual component of the history of livestock development, especially in the Americas.
Each year a leader who has made a major contribution to the industry is selected for this award. In 2017 Angus beef cattle leader Tom Burke was honored and Richard completed his portrait for its unveiling in conjunction with the North American International Livestock Exhibition in Louisville, KY, in November 2017.
The Kentucky Exposition Center houses the entire collection and some of the most recent portraits by Richard are on permanent display.
When I look at Ellen Eagle’s work I am reminded of my earliest interest in portraits. I was a boy, looking at reproductions of old masters’ paintings in my parents’ attic, moved by something immediately present about them but other world at the same time. Eagle’s works are like that. They are very specific to the individual sitter’s character and momentary presence, but larger yet— universal and timeless.
The famous teacher, Robert Henri once wrote: “There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual- become clairvoyant. We reach then into reality. Such are the moments of our greatest happiness. Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom. It is in the nature of all people to have these experiences; but in our time and under the conditions of our lives, it is only a rare few who are able to continue in the experience and find expression for it.” The Art Spirit
Andrea 14″ x 12-1/4″, Pastel
Eagle’s portraits are very different from Henri’s, but ironically they are the quintessence of that statement. They are so utterly real, so painfully everyday, and yet they are bathed in an ambient light that suggests her subjects are somehow blessed by an unseen presence.
I am drawn back to Eagle’s paintings whenever I grow tired of the affectations of so many contemporary portraitists. I am at first restored or refreshed by the honesty of her portrayals. Then as I study them more closely I find that little firings are going off in my brain that I can only describe as an experience of being repeatedly stunned by what she has accomplished within that quiet, unassuming presentation. Each small section is a new surprise with its own impact, yet each is perfectly integrated, so that a viewer can comfortably explore the face or figure without feeling lost or disconnected from the whole. Who would guess that there could be such subtly interwoven passages in the depiction of a single figure?
Mei-Chiao 6-1/2″ x 6-1/4″, Pastel
The people in her works, as well as her technique, are unashamedly earthy and plain but painted with the sensitivity and intricacy of a Chopin sonata. This intrinsic contrast is the basis of her power: contrast between that which is weighty and elemental, and that which is sensitive and refined; contrast between deeply felt emotion, even passion, and the restraint of discipline and thoughtfulness; contrast between the simplicity of a single figure and the complex arrangement of subtle movements within the figure and within the light and space that surrounds it. These contrasts fittingly engender both a sense of serenity and of being very much alive.
Maurice 8-1/8″ x 5-3/8″, Pastel
If you are put off by the homeliness of everyday life, you may not like her work. But if you are not, Eagle’s paintings will lead you to an even greater belief, than you may already have, in the survival of the human spirit. Her work gives us faith in that. Some of us, at various points in our lives, have questioned our ability to survive with our authentic vision intact. Eagle’s paintings suggest that she too has struggled, possibly stumbling and doubting herself now and then, but that she has tenaciously returned to that steady gaze at life as it is—-in all its quiet glory. Her works give the impression that they were made by an artist with heart, stubbornness, and conviction.
If any of you have seen her paintings and not had this feeling, I suggest that you visit them again sometime when you have a quieter mind. They require patience and receptivity. Eagle’s vision will not leap out at you. It is too dignified and worldly wise to demand your attention. It is not advertisement for the artist but rather an intimate conversation with a close friend. If you take the time to study her portraits you discover that you are in a privileged space, talking about the deepest experiences of your life, or hers or that of the subject of the portrait.
The Canadian author, Margaret Laurence was once quoted as saying that she wrote about what everyone knew but never thought to write about. In a similar way Ellen Eagle paints what we all see and typically disregard as insignificant. Tactfully and unobtrusively she slips around the shields that her sitters wear to protect them from the world and paints them in the safety of her world. By allowing us to see them in this way, in their least guarded moments, she confirms for us that what is genuine is ultimately the most beautiful.
To this day, many on the Eastern Seaboard consider the commissioning of painted portraits to be simply a matter of tradition and culture. Inherited from Europe and Britain during colonial times, portraits were, for over a century, their most common means of indicating a person’s status and place in history. And now, even with the technology that is available for creating immediate imagery, the painted portrait on the East Coast continues to be a symbol of distinction.
Chicago, on the other hand, was founded as recently as 1833, less than thirty years before the Civil War (1861–1865). Although the Civil War stimulated the city’s growth and economy, it stunted its cultural development. Then, only seven years after the end of the war, Chicago was devastated by fire and had to completely rebuild itself, delaying its cultural development even further. By that time, photography had become an art form in its own right and a reasonably efficient way of documenting a person’s physical character. Efficiency was a key word for the fast-growing new city. Portrait painting, to the Midwesterner’s pragmatic, bottom-line view of life and business, was an inefficient, nonessential item—even for luxurious living. Consequently, today the second largest city in the United States and a national hub of business can only lay claim to a scattering of early portraits and, in general, those are of a mediocre quality. Furthermore, Chicago’s social and financial elite have not typically thought of portraits as being a connection to their ancestors or to their progeny and future generations.
Dalia Caton Field, oil painting by George Peter Healy
There have been some exceptions, however. One of the earliest portrait artists of real quality to live and work in Chicago was George Peter Healy. Originally from Boston, Healy was classically trained in Paris by two of the most celebrated artists of that time, Thomas Couture and Antoine-Jean Gros. He became so admired as an artist in France that he was commissioned to paint King Louis Philippe. Following that the King then commissioned him to paint portraits of the most important leaders in the United States, which brought him back to his native country. That led to a long succession of solid, insightful portraits of many of America’s presidents, statesmen, business leaders, and contributors to the country’s arts and letters.
Healy came to Chicago in 1855 and painted portraits of Illinois’ most influential figures until he left in 1869. He was in Springfield to paint Abraham Lincoln shortly after Lincoln had won the the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. Healy found Lincoln to be an especially entertaining, convivial sitter, laughing at his own stories and making the time pass rapidly. At one point during the sittings Lincoln was going through some letters and he began to laugh. He read to Healy the letter, which was from a young girl who wrote that he would look better and would have a better chance at winning the presidency if he were to grow a beard. Lincoln asked Healy if he would like to paint him with a beard, to which Healy responded, “No.” The resulting portrait in fact presents the future president in a way that is very different from the iconic, bearded image that we now associate with him. It is more youthful, more open, and, I think, more revealing of the essential person than we see in any of the other portraits of him before or after that.
Presidential hopeful, Abraham Lincoln, by George Peter Alexander Healy
After the Civil War, while Healy was again in Europe, Congress commissioned him to paint a posthumous portrait of Lincoln. The figure was based on a painting Healy had previously made of Lincoln conferring with Generals Sherman and Grant and Admiral Porter. In the portrait Lincoln is represented in a thoughtful, attentive pose, leaning forward with his bearded chin resting against his hand. With this painting, Healy finally had an opportunity to paint the president as Lincoln’s young admirer had suggested.
In 1892, after more than two decades of painting continuously in Europe, Healy returned to Chicago—quite possibly to contribute to the Columbian World Exposition—and died in Chicago a few years later.
Mrs. Potter Palmer, 1893, oil painting by Anders Zorn
One of the greatest “direct,” bravura style painters of all time, Anders Zorn, came to Chicago to participate in the Exposition in 1893 and immediately took a liking to the city and its people. Despite his immense talent, international acclaim, and his marriage to a wealthy society woman, Zorn had received a rather haughty reception from the upper classes in Europe. According to Zorn, they behaved with “ceremonious style and artificial customs” that he never felt comfortable with (from “Saint-Gaudens, Zorn and the Goddesslike Miss Anderson” by William E. Hagans). Chicagoans, on the other hand, responded more to the quality of his work and character than to his pedigree, which was of a Swedish peasant stock. The simple, warm welcome Zorn received from Chicagoans was heartening to him and was confirmation of what he had come to feel in general about Americans. According to biographer William E. Hagans, Zorn wrote the following in his memoir: “Over there [in America], when they say ‘He’s all-right,’ all doors open to the foreigner, which Europeans cannot understand. Openness, honesty, straightforwardness, punctuality, these things are included in the testimonial ‘He’s all-right.’”
Naturally then, Zorn stayed in Chicago for a while. During his stay, he painted some outstanding portraits of Chicago’s industrial, commercial, and political leaders, such as Charles Deering (in the collection of the University Club), son of the founder and CEO of International Harvester, and department store magnate Potter Palmer and his wife. He also painted the chief architect of the Exposition, Daniel Burnham, and two U.S. senators from Illinois.
President Abraham Lincoln by Augustus Saint-Gaudens
The sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who was a friend of Zorn’s and also came to Chicago because of the Exposition, left some truly great portrait sculptures here as well. His full-figure sculptural portrait of Lincoln in Lincoln Park is one of his most impressive pieces and certainly one of the finest and the strongest, symbolic portrayals of President Lincoln and the principals he now represents.
Justice John Paul Stevens, U.S. Supreme Court, by Jim Ingwerson
Since the 1960s, James Ingwerson has been the most prominent of all the Chicago portrait painters. There have been other portraitists of quality, but during his long career, Ingwerson has consistently stood at the summit.
Ingwerson’s quiet, unassuming manner belies the solidity and confidence that can be seen in his paintings. Looking at one of Ingwerson’s portraits, one is immediately struck by the perfect balance between the painting’s quality and the quality of the person portrayed. They are painted with a skill and a grace of execution that seems effortless, yet above all else there is great dignity in his creative expression, reflecting the character of the artist as well as that of his subjects.
In addition to subjects across the country, Ingwerson has painted many of the most influential Chicagoans of the past half century, and I am convinced that his portrayals of them will survive far beyond anyone’s memories of the people, just as Healy’s and Zorn’s will.
John Baird, CEO and Chairman, Baird & Warner, by Richard Halstead
Realism in general has had a difficult time reestablishing its acceptance in Chicago, however. After the 1940s, Chicago’s elite,feeling somewhat provincial in comparison with their eastern cousins, embraced the latest and often iconoclastic fashions in art. Not until recent years have tastes here become more eclectic and, as a result, have traditional art and portrait painting been given a fresh evaluation. Now, at long last, painted portraits are not competing with photography as they did in the past but, instead, generally live side-by-side as separate entities. There also seems to be an easier relationship between the traditional and contemporary arts, the two sometimes mixing in the same environment.
I believe we, here in Chicago, are about to enter an interesting period for portrait art. I sense that it is reemerging as a new tradition—not as an imitation of a past tradition or as an appropriation of other cultures’ customs, nor even as a self-conscious reaction to either of those. I believe a new tradition for portrait painting is emerging as something fresh, original, and distinctly ours, a tradition that specifically represents the values and life today in Chicago and the Midwest.
If you enjoyed Richard Halstead’s blog post about John Singer Sargent, you will want to pick up a copy of the 2014 July/August issue of Fine Art Connoisseur magazine, which reprises his post as an article titled “The Musicality of John Singer Sargent.” And, once you own the issue, I predict you’ll want to display it in the room where you do most of your relaxing and entertaining. That way you can easily pick it up to reread Richard’s insights and review the gorgeous Sargent paintings reprinted to illustrate his points. You’ll also have it easily on hand to share with fellow artists and art lovers.