Old Masters in Modern Times

Portraits by Philip Salamone for the Dane Arts Gallery Show

Philip Salamone, an artist of Madison, Wisconsin, knows something about painting like the Old Masters.In his solo show as part of the Dane Arts Collective, his modern day subjects are portrayed in the classical style of portraiture. Philip will find friends,family, other artists, musicians, and even local shop owners to sit for him and a small coterie of artists who spend their days or evenings honing the skills of portraiture painting. In his own studio, he sets the model up usually sitting in a chair placed on a platform surrounded with curtains but with a bright light aimed at the model’s head. Artists gather around on benches or with easels to draw or paint who they see on the platform in the chair.

Portraiture throughout out history has at times been deemed a lesser art than historical paintings or landscapes or interiors. Like still life paintings, portraits could pay the bills if one had enough talent and education. Yet, some portraits are masterpieces. Leonardo painted “Mona Lisa “; Gainsborough painted “Blue Boy” and Holbein painted “Henry VIII”. It takes awhile to master the art of painting someone’s portrait. This is why many artists make lots of head studies to learn how to accurately paint flesh tones, and to get the proportions right and to get the facial structures in properly. If there is even a small inaccuracy, these details affect the rest of the painting dramatically. It is like painting the eyes too close to each other. They look cross-eyed from a distance.

Besides skillfully rendering a head, there is another quality which makes a head study into a portrait and a work of art. This is capturing the personality of the sitter which can be done in various ways. Expressing the essence of a model is what portraiture entails too. Before Impressionism in the late 19th century, artists such as Edouard Manet ignored the classical tradition of portraiture, which wanted to see subjects painted in upper-class settings like on a throne or in a royal procession, and instead painted his subjects outside near a woods. See Manet’s ” Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe.” Manet knew well the classical traditions of the academies and was able to achieve this skill. However, being able to put his models anywhere was a certain freedom which was necessary for him to keep painting. The absolute purity of the painting for Manet did not lie in the choice of subject or theme.

Mary Cassatt is another painter of the late 19th century, for whom the standards of the art academy began to pinch too much. Influenced by the classical painter Emile Carolus-Duran and the Spanish realist painter Velaquez, Cassatt felt the tension between the beauty of the classical tradition and modern times. Her Painting “Lady of Seville” shows how Cassatt found the grace of the lady’s back, the clarity of her skin, and a direct gaze of Lady Seville was as beautiful as any classical convention. Mary Cassatt persisted in questioning what is beauty in other works, too. She put ordinary, plebeian looking models in heroic roles just to prove her sensibility about the nature of beauty in art. She was very successful and for this the Parisian avant-garde took notice.

To see Philip Salamone’s portrait paintings is to ask about the relevance of the classical tradition of portraiture from the 19th century with today’s art world. This artist’s skill is undeniable and his capture of the sitter’s personality come through. What is also curious to understand is how Salamone has invited into his studio models from many walks of living and made them shine in their own skin. Like heroes of the modern world who deserve to be painted well and with empathy.

Note*****

Philip Salamone was awarded two prizes from the Portrait Society of America: 5th Place for Non-Commissioned Portrait, his painting of Bo., and 2nd Place in Still Life, his painting of lightbulbs.

Portrait Society of America | MOC 2017 Winners (1)

Congratulations, Phil!