David Prince, Syracuse University Art Galleries' associate director, drew an overflow audience to the kickoff event of the Mitchell Gallery's exhibit The Artist Revealed: Artist Portraits and Self-Portraits, sharing stories that illuminate the 51 works.
In 2004, when Prince initially assembled the exhibition in Syracuse, N.Y., he found "the broadest cross-section possible drawn from our permanent collection," which now helps visitors to the gallery on the St. John's College campus discover what defines portraiture.
Creative people, including Thomas Eakins, Charlie Chaplin, Ansel Adams, C.S. Lewis and Pablo Casals, are portrayed in a variety of media by such artists as Milton Avery, Leonard Baskin and Norman Rockwell and photographer Edward Steichen.
Far from a dry recitation Friday afternoon of birth and death dates, Prince brought the artists and their subjects to life over the centuries.
Contemporary artist Chuck Close created a woodcut portrait of Alex Katz. Assembling it after a serious illness was perhaps an all-consuming type of therapy. The 1992 work was created using a grid. It contains 180 colors made from 80 blocks of wood. It resembles a computer pixel portrait.
More representational was Rockwell's humorous Triple Self-Portrait, done in 1960 for a Saturday Evening Post cover. He portrays his likeness accurately in the mirror and more flatteringly on canvas to amuse us with art from a different age. Rockwell also showed, tacked onto his easel, small self-portraits of Durer, Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Picasso.
Prince directed attention to one of his favorite portraits in the show, a Steichen photograph of Charlie Chaplin taken in New York in 1925 at a pivotal point in the comedian's career. The large shadow he casts represents his becoming involved with United Artists, a studio run by fellow artists Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.
Nearby was the 1917 pensive self-portrait of Steichen posed with his studio camera.
Across the room, directly opposite the Chaplin portrait, is Prince's favorite work in the show, Forbidden Fruit, an oil on canvas created in 1950 by Yasuo Kuniyoshi, who at age 13 emigrated from Japan to Los Angeles, where he picked fruit. He traveled to New York City at age 16, where he lived with an uncle while studying art and design. During World War II, Kuniyoshi volunteered for the war effort by making posters for the U.S. Information Service, but he was denied U.S. citizenship.
Prince, who met with the artist's widow, is convinced that this painting of a sickly looking child at a table on which are stacked sections of watermelon is Kuniyoshi's self-portrait done three years before his death, with the watermelon representing citizenship that he could not have. The painting also contains a chalkboard with a cow on it, which Prince said might relate to the fact that "Kuniyoshi was born in the year of the cow in Japan and felt a close affinity for cows."
Prince's invaluable introduction will help illuminate future visits to Mitchell Gallery, where The Artist Revealed will continue through Oct. 21.
The Mitchell Gallery is open from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays. Free. Docent-led tours are offered from noon to 3 p.m. Thursdays. 410-626-2556.