Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) represents a culminating apex of two of the artist’s most celebrated motifs—the pool and the double portrait. An immediately recognizable and iconic image in David Hockney’s diverse oeuvre, Portrait of an Artist has graced the cover of numerous artist monographs, starred in various retrospectives—as well as Jack Hazan's 1973 cult Hockney film, A Bigger Splash—and firmly stands its ground among the best museum examples, including A Bigger Splash, 1967 (Tate, London), Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, 1971 (Tate, London) and American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman), 1968 (Art Institute of Chicago).
Often autobiographical—dealing with need, rejection and intimacy—Hockney’s depictions of his friends and lovers are among the strongest in his oeuvre. Chief among his aggregation of muses is the standing figure in Portrait of an Artist, Peter Schlesinger. Hockney met the eighteen-year-old Schlesinger in 1966 while he was a student in one of Hockney’s advanced art classes at UCLA. For the next five years, Schlesinger would prove to be the great love of Hockney’s life, as well as a favorite muse. The two lived together in California and London, mixing with Hockney’s expansive social circle as a prominent couple in the world of art, film and literature. Throughout the late 1960s as their relationship deepened, Hockney’s desire to capture the intensity of his feelings for Peter, as well as his physical beauty, contributed greatly to the artist’s sudden shift towards a more naturalistic approach to his work. However, the much younger Schlesinger was far less gregarious than Hockney, and tensions between the pair grew gradually before a heated fight in Cadaqués in 1971 led to the end of their relationship—leaving Hockney distraught.
As Marco Livingstone and Kay Haymer have described in their book, Hockney’s People, “Hockney’s most affecting portraits, not surprisingly, are often those of people with whom he has close emotional bonds. These include the painting he made of Peter during the final months of their five years together. In them he acknowledges the shift in tone in their friendship, the emotional distance that was separating them from each other, even though he was not necessarily consciously seeking to illustrate the situation. It was perhaps more a question of an extremely sensitive person picking up signals that had not yet been openly communicated, and including them intuitively in his pictures. So it is that works featuring Peter even in settings suggestive of joy, such as Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), exude a bittersweet atmosphere. … by showing another young man swimming towards Peter, the artist acknowledges lost love and his boyfriend’s desire for a new partner” (M. Livingstone and K. Haymer, Hockney’s People, London, 2003, p. 112).
Painted during a highly prolific period following the devastating end of the artist’s relationship with Schlesinger, Portrait of an Artist is a powerful testament to the therapeutic power of painting. Its vibrant colors and rich, tactile surfaces celebrate the bliss Hockney found in the medium as he adjusted to a time of deep loneliness, haunted by Schlesinger’s departure. “It was very traumatic for me,” Hockney would later recount, “I’d never been through anything like that. I was miserable, very, very unhappy.” And yet, out of his great sadness, came a time of extraordinary creative output. “One effect of all this was that during the following year I produced an enormous amount of work. I started painting very intensely that September... The truth is, I was so unhappy, there was nothing to do but work. That was when I started staying in. I didn’t go out much; I just worked. Sur la terrasse was just about finished. Pool and Steps, Le Nid du Duc I think was half-finished. Still life on a Glass Table I began in September; the French Shop was painted after September, and so where the Beach Umbrella and Rubber Ring Floating in a Swimming Pool; and I began the Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), The Island and Deep and Wet Water—all from September on. Whereas with Peter I often went out on an evening, from then on I didn’t. For about three months I was painting fourteen, fifteen hours a day. There was nothing else I wanted to do. It was a way of coping with life. It was very lonely; I was incredibly lonely” (D. Hockney, in N. Stangos, ed., David Hockney by David Hockney, New York, 1977, p. 240).
Although Schlesinger had successfully completed his training as an artist by the time Hockney completed Portrait of an Artist, Hockney has included no indication within the confines of the composition that Schlesinger is the artist referred to in the title. Thus, it has often been suggested that the artist is Hockney himself, represented metonymically by the artist’s most iconic motif—the image of the pool. Christopher Knight explains, “The standing boy, conspicuously clothed, leans over the edge of the pool to gaze at an amoebic figure swimming under water, adrift in a beautiful yet alien realm. In contrast to the evident naturalism of the surrounding landscape the rendering of the pool and swimmer is carefully patterned, highly artificial, contextually abstracted. It is as if the standing boy is staring deep into a perfect picture, thoroughly seduced yet fully aware of its utter inaccessibility. The picture is a portrait of an artist—but it is a portrait of a spectator too” (C. Knight, “Composite Views: Themes and Motifs in Hockney’s Art,” David Hockney: A Retrospective, p. 38).
Perhaps the most personally affecting work in the artist’s oeuvre, Portrait of an Artist emerged not only as the product of one of contemporary art’s greatest breakups, but also as a well-documented story of the artistic process. Originally derived from an unintentional juxtaposition of two photographs strewn on his studio floor, Hockney reveled in the surreal narrative that was born from the unrelated images—a photograph of a swimmer underwater that the artist had taken in Hollywood in 1966, and the other of a boy staring at the ground. Intrigued by how together, the disparate clipped images made it appear as if the boy was staring at the swimmer, this double-portrait arranged by chance served as the catalyst for one of the artist’s most celebrated compositions. “The subject of the painting had originally been suggested by the accidental juxtaposition of two photographs laying on my studio floor,” Hockney explained. “One was of a figure swimming underwater and therefore quite distorted—it was taken in Hollywood in 1966—and the other was of a boy gazing at something on the ground; yet because of the way the photographs were lying, it looked as though he was gazing at the distorted figure. The idea of once again painting two figures in different styles appealed so much that I began the painting immediately” (D. Hockney, David Hockney by David Hockney, op. cit., p. 247-248).
Hockney first resolved to paint Portrait of an Artist in the fall of 1971—as documented in Hazan’s film A Bigger Splash which detailed the end of Hockney’s five-year relationship with Schlesinger. However, after struggling through the original composition for six months, Hockney abandoned the first canvas, and subsequently spent the remainder of the year travelling through Hawaii, Japan, and South East Asia with Mark Lancaster. In early April, Hockney began the canvas anew in preparation for his exhibition the following month at André Emmerich Gallery in New York. Travelling to the home of director Tony Richardson’s house in Le Nid du Duc in the South of France with his studio assistant Mo McDermott and a young photographer, John St. Clair. Hockney sought to recreate the composition with Mo standing-in for Schlesinger and St. Clair as the swimmer.
Armed with his Pentax camera, Hockney took hundreds of photographs at different times of the day with St. Clair swimming at different velocities to achieve his desired effect. Upon their return to London, Hockney covered the wall of his studio with the images. However, Hockney remained unsatisfied with the photographs of McDermott as Peter’s surrogate. Subsequently, Hockney asked Peter to return once more to be his central muse. Having photographed his old lover in Kensington Gardens—in the same position, under the same light conditions, and wearing the same pink jacket—Hockney assembled a composite photograph of Schlesinger made of five collaged sections. Based on this array of photographic studies, Hockney worked on the painting with great passion for eighteen hours a day for two weeks, completing it the night before it was to leave for the New York exhibition, later the artist recalled, “I must admit I loved working on that picture, working with such intensity; it was marvelous doing it, really thrilling” (D. Hockney, quoted in P. Webb, Portrait of David Hockney, New York, 1988, p. 125).
The image of the pool—or the picture within a picture as associated with Portrait of an Artist—forms part of a diverse range of pool explorations in the artist’s oeuvre. “If there is one image that more than any other is conventionally associated with David Hockney’s art,” Knight has explained, “surely it is the image of the swimming pool. There are many reasons for this. He has painted, drawn, photographed, or made prints containing images of swimming pools from the mid-1960s to the present day. His rise to public prominence more than twenty years ago was coincident with the first appearance of this image in his works. As an expatriate Briton living principally in Los Angeles, he is easily associated with the commonplace clichés of that sunny climate, the swimming pool among them. A rather silly film, although one that achieved a degree of cultish popularity in the 1970s, chronicled his execution of a picture called Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) and was titled with the name of another swimming-pool painting, A Bigger Splash” (C. Knight,” Composite Views: These and Motifs in Hockney’s Art,” David Hockney: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum, 1988, p. 23).
Indeed, Hockney’s discovery of his most famous subject matter corresponded to his arrival in Los Angeles nearly a decade earlier. Already celebrated as an enfant terrible of Contemporary art by the time he left the Royal College of Art in London in 1962, Hockney had first traveled to California in January 1964. The place held a magnetic draw for the artist, who had immersed himself in the potent idealism of its sun-drenched landscape, and the California that he had found in magazines, movies and the gay novels of John Rechy. He had daydreamed about a world of warmth and pleasure, reminiscent of Matisse’s Nice with its palms, bathers, striped awnings and simple forms and was delighted to find that it was everything he had hoped it would be. Here, he felt free to invent the city, giving it a promptly recognizable, iconic form that no other painter had cottoned to: “[Los Angeles was] the first time I had ever painted a place,” he later explained. “In London I think I was put off by the ghost of Sickert, and I couldn’t see it properly. In Los Angeles, there were no ghosts... I remember seeing, within the first week, the ramp of a freeway going into the air and I suddenly thought: My God, this place needs its Piranesi; Los Angeles could have a Piranesi, so here I am” (D. Hockney, quoted in S. Howgate, David Hockney Portraits, exh. cat., National Portrait Gallery, London, 2006, p. 39).
Although, on the surface, his pool paintings often describe scenes of leisure and luxury, Hockney himself has stated that he had other intentions when he embarked on the swimming pool pictures. He was primarily concerned with formal issues of the play of light, of capturing in paint infinite patterns of the moving surface of water. “I never thought the swimming pool pictures were at all about mere hedonist pleasure,” the artist has recounted. “They were about the surface of the water, the very thin film, the shimmering two-dimensionality. What is it that you’re seeing? For example, I once emptied out my pool and painted blue lines on the bottom. Well now, when the water’s still, you see just clear through it and the lines are clean and steady. When somebody’s been swimming, the lines are set to moving. But where are they moving? If you go underneath the surface, no matter how turbulent the water, the lines again are steady. They are only wriggling on the surface, this thinnest film. Well, it’s that surface that fascinates me; and that’s what those paintings are about really” (D. Hockney, quoted in L. Wechsler, “A Visit with David and Stanley Hollywood Hills 1987”, David Hockney: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1988, p. 81).
Deeply attuned to the history of art, Portrait of an Artist recalls the images of the classical renditions of the bather placed in an idyllic background found in Western painting since the Renaissance. The convention is a metaphor not only for the harmonious relationship between the human figure and nature, but also represents a world that is uncorrupted and pure. Knight has analyzed this relationship stating: “Hockney’s pictures of swimming pools are perhaps most revealing in this regard, for they are contemporary adaptations of the conventional literary and artistic theme of the Golden Age. The voluptuous and sybaritic bather is a primary symbol of that classical myth of origin, a myth that speaks of a lost, pastoral Arcadia of peace and harmony, which stands in sharp contrast to the convulsively animated world of history. The image functions as a refusal of the impure world of the everyday, and its use finds its implicit meaning in the gap between those Edenic origins and the crushing realities of contemporary life” (C. Knight, op. cit., p. 38).
Indeed, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries artists began to treat in radical new ways often very traditional subject matter. The nude, semi-clad figure and the bather became a common subject. A subject that has been used throughout art history, associated with artists such as Titian, Michelangelo and Rembrandt, it allowed artists to pursue and develop stylistic innovations whilst also expressing new attitudes towards the living form. What developed was an unromanticised view of the human body, a realism that sits within a classical tradition yet is representative of an emergent avant-garde and the birth of Modernism.
Despite his engagement with naturalistic representation, Hockney playfully demonstrates his understanding of Modernism by flattening certain areas the picture plane and trimming away all inessentials. In the foreground of Portrait of an Artist, Hockney has created an image built according to a rectilinear grid of nearly monochromatic planes and stylized reflection lines that emphasize the two-dimensionality of the painting’s surface. Yet, the human qualities essential to Hockney’s art override the painting’s pronounced attention to form, revealing a subtle and perceptive feeling for human drama. Employing a combination of a graphic designer’s eye for composition, an illustrator’s technique, the precision of a photograph and a painter’s sensitivity to color, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) not only conveys the essence of the Californian good-life that had inspired him a decade before, but also stands as a vivid testament to a once in a life-time love.