Part of her celebrated History Portrait series (1988-90), in 1989 Cindy Sherman executed Untitled #201 alongside eight other works for a show at the Chantal Crousel gallery in Paris, taking as her inpsiration the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Uncannily familiar, in the present work the seated aristocratic gentleman, seen from a low view point, imperiously gazes down at the viewer against a seemingly opulent backdrop of sumptuously brocaded fabric that evokes the aura of an old master painting. On closer inspection, however, the costume is so deliberately rough and the cosmetic features so exaggerated that this illusion collapses. As with all of Sherman's oeuvre, it eventually lays bare the simulacral process of disguise. Similarly, incorporating the work's frame for the first time in her practice, Untitled 201#'s shimmering silver frame at once appears in the guise of an ornate old master surround but reveals itself to be a contemporary stained wooden form, custom made for the work. Indeed, as Régis Durand observes 'the resulting images are probably not that far removed from the daily reality of the workshops of many painters: the rather tawdry, staged compositions that subsequently entered the cultural pantheon. Where the finished paintings convey an illusion of power and life, Sherman presents a crude assemblage of signs and signifiers. In that sense, these painterly photographs are truly the debased heirs of the Vanitas tradition' (R. Durand, 'Introduction', Cindy Sherman, exh. cat., Jeu de Paume, Paris, 2006, p. 259).
Knowingly balanced in a precarious position that oscillates between the grotesque and humorous parody, Sherman questions the theme of representation in art history and explores the relationship between the painter and sitter. Arthur Danto describes the series as: 'extremely comical, whereas the original would have been quite serious indeed, a serious effigy of a serious person who took herself or himself, and was taken by the artist, with suitable seriousness: having one's image made is a pretty serious business. But secondly, there is something really frightening about Sherman's portraits of portraits - as though they lay, like a rubber mask of some witch or werewolf, on the border line of horror and fun. It is as if one knows they are false and yet cannot help but be frightened of them, the way we are frightened of someone wearing a mask we know is also a mask' (A. Danto, Cindy Sherman's History Portraits, New York 1991, p. 11).