Mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives: when artists paint their families
An affectionate portrait by a rising star of 1:54 Online Powered by Christie’s heads up our gallery of works by artists who have been inspired by their loved ones, ranging from Kahlo to de Lempicka, Gainsborough to Giacometti
Throughout history, artists have painted, sculpted and photographed members of their families for the same reasons we photograph ours today. They have sought to show off or develop their skills using a cheap and convenient model. They have been determined to capture a moment in time, or the essence of an object of their affection. And they have attempted to make a statement, or to explore their identity. Here we look at nine artists who, for some or all of these objectives, have turned their gaze on those closest to them.
‘Painting family members allows me to document our roots and our journey for the next generation,’ says the Cameroon-born artist Ludovic Nkoth, ‘to understand them and the spaces we occupy in the United States as immigrants and first-generation African-Americans. I’ve always told myself, you’ll never know where you are going if you don’t know where you’re from.’
Born in 1994, Nkoth moved to South Carolina when he was 13, and now lives in New York, where he took an MFA at Hunter College. This portrait of his grandmother was painted specifically for 1:54 (8-10 October 2020). ‘She’s wearing her favourite dress and hat on her way to the Sunday service,’ he says. ‘She always made sure I was in church every Sunday just to give thanks.’
The oldest of four boys, Nkoth has also painted his younger brothers ‘more times than I can count’. ‘Watching them grow up in this country compared to the way I was raised in Cameroon is something I love to document,’ he says.
Lucian Freud wasn’t conventional father material — his sexual opportunism drove his wives and lovers away, taking their children with them. But the subjects of his forensic portraits were usually the people in his life, and they included most of the 14 children he acknowledged as his. ‘I only paint the people who are close to me, and who closer than my children?’ he once explained.
It was also by sitting for Freud that his children got to know their father. ‘He would paint, tell me stories, sing me songs, give me food and take me for dinner,’ said the novelist Esther Freud, the second of the painter’s two daughters with Bernadine Coverley. ‘He makes you feel wonderful. I did feel very close to him.’
In February 2016, this small-scale portrait of Esther sold at Christie’s in London for nearly £5 million alongside a companion portrait of her half-sister Isobel (‘Ib’) Boyt.
‘Art is only a means of seeing. No matter what I look at, it all surprises and eludes me,’ said Alberto Giacometti, who, in an endeavour to capture what he saw, drew, painted and sculpted his his wife Annette — as well as his brother Diego — over and over again.
Giacometti had met Annette in Switzerland during the Second World War, and went on to make such demands of her, particularly during his infatuation with a prostitute, Caroline, that he was led to say he had ‘destroyed’ her.
Between 1962 and 1965, he created 10 busts of her in plaster, later cast in bronze, ‘to succeed, just for once, in making a head like the head I see’. In according Annette grace and dignity, he also expresses compassion for the suffering evident in her gaze.
Included in the rich collection of portraits and self-portraits created by Frida Kahlo is this endearing one of her father, a professional photographer who taught her to use a camera, and urged her to paint when a streetcar accident left her bedridden for months.
Kahlo painted the portrait 10 years after her father’s death, depicting him as he had looked in his wedding photographs. The dedication on the scroll at the bottom reads: ‘I painted my father Wilhelm Kahlo, of Hungarian-German origin, artist-photographer by profession, in character generous, intelligent and fine, valiant because he suffered for sixty years with epilepsy, but never gave up working and fought against Hitler, with adoration, His daughter Frida Kahlo’.
Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980) is perhaps best known for her self-portrait Tamara in a Green Bugatti (1929), held in a private collection, and her portraits of her lovers Ira Perrot and Rafaela Fano.
Yet the polished Art Deco style of the bisexual Russian-Polish painter — influenced by Cubism and Neoclassicism, particularly Ingres — is just as instantly recognisable in her portraits of men, notably her first husband, the glamorous Polish lawyer Tadeusz de Lempicki.
The couple had married in 1916 in the chapel of the Knights of Malta in St Petersburg. When Tadeusz was arrested by the Bolsheviks, Tamara secured his release and their passage to Europe.
In Paris, however — now with a daughter, Kizette — the relationship soured. While Tamara found success as a painter and lived it up with the social elite, Tadeusz was unable or unwilling to work — and he quickly tired of his wife’s infidelities.
In this portrait from 1928, painted the year the couple divorced, he looks dark and handsome and elegant, but sullen and resentful, too. Significantly, perhaps, his wedding ring hand is unfinished.
Alfred Stieglitz had already published the final issue of Camera Work and closed down his avant-garde 291 gallery when, in 1917, he started photographing Georgia O’Keeffe with what she described as ‘a kind of heat and excitement’.
The painter was 23 years his junior, and he was infatuated with her, describing her to fellow painter Arthur Dove as a ‘constant source of wonder to me, like Nature itself’. She became his muse, lover and, in 1924, his wife.
Better known as ‘Whistler’s Mother’, this oil portrait of Anna McNeill Whistler was deemed sufficiently sentimental to make it onto an American postage stamp for Mother’s Day in 1934.
For Whistler, however, it was not so much a family portrait as an aesthetic experiment, a counterpart to his 1862 work Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, in which his mistress Joanna Hiffernan served as model.
Indeed, it is thought that the religious Anna — who lived with her son in London from 1864 to 1875, dutifully preparing lunch for visitors at his studio — is only in the picture at all because the intended model didn’t show up.
The painting is now firmly part of popular culture — it even has a starring role in Bean, alongside Rowan Atkinson as a bumbling museum guide.
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Thomas Gainsborough may have bewailed the parade of ‘damnd faces’ that kept him from landscape painting, but that didn’t stop him from painting more portraits of his family and friends than any known painter before him — and for love, rather than money, too.
The 50 works in the National Gallery’s recent Gainsborough’s Family Album exhibition included this oil painting of his beloved daughters — an enchanting study in transience that seems almost heartbreaking in retrospect.
Time wasn’t kind to Mary and Margaret: Mary had a short-lived marriage to a man whom both women had fallen in love with, and they ended their lives living together — one ‘odd’, as a visitor put it, the other ‘deranged’.
Originally bought for less than a shilling, this masterful Rembrandt portrait made auction history when it sold for 760,000 guineas at Christie’s London in 1965. But the work, thought to be of Rembrandt’s son Titus, is deeply affecting on a human level, too.
Titus (born 1641) was the only surviving child from Rembrandt’s marriage to Saskia van Uylenburgh, who died of tuberculosis mere months after giving birth. Rembrandt drew and painted Titus many times, as he did Saskia, his mother and, later, Hendrickje van Stoffels, the mother of his only surviving daughter, Cornelia (born 1654).
Titus, Hendrickje and Cornelia were still with the artist when, in 1656, he was forced to sell his grand home on the Jodenbreestraat. But Hendrickje died in 1663, and Titus followed in 1668. Suddenly, the searing sadness in Rembrandt’s late self-portraits makes heart-wrenching sense.