Artist: Annie Kevans
Title: Barbara Palmer, 1st Duchess of Cleveland, All about Eve
Medium: Oil on paper
Size: 40 x 30 cm
Misc: Signed, titled and dated in pencil on verso.
Despite contemporary interpretations of the portrait, there is a general acceptance and knowledge of what portraiture is, or should be, about: capturing the likeness and personality of a person. By using the traditional painting format of portraiture, Annie Kevans (FR, 1972) uses people’s familiarity with portraiture to imbue her works with truth and to explore difficult ideas.
Kevans’ work is concept driven and the actual similarity to the person depicted in her work is almost irrelevant, however, many people have presumed that her paintings are based on real documentation when about half of them are not. Kevans says that she has frequently been asked where she found photos of people who lived in the 18th century when, of course, photography did not exist. When she painted her Boys series, she did not use real documentation for approximately 20 of the 30 paintings of dictators as young boys. The series was not about portraying the dictators as they really looked as children but rather about the notion of the ‘innocent child’ which has influenced images of children in art since the Victorian times. In All the Presidents’ Girls Kevans was interested in the manipulation of truth in the recording of history as well as the creation of status and authority in ordinary men. The series also raised issues surrounding racial conflict in the US and the ongoing denial of the horrors of slavery, at a time when the US elected its first black president.
By using people’s familiarity with portraiture, Kevans is able to easily connect with a wide audience, which is almost impossible for art forms which are perceived to be more intellectual. All her works are, also, about portraiture itself. Despite the legacies of Francis Bacon, Picasso and Andy Warhol, who all used photographs as source material, the rules behind portraiture remain strongly imbedded in people’s minds. Kevans says she has been asked if she wouldn’t prefer to paint her subjects “from life” as though the craft of portraiture is somehow more important than her concepts and what she chooses to depict. Of course, long before portraiture became a popular way of immortalising the very wealthy, painters used models or their imaginations to depict religious figures such as Jesus and Moses, however, more modern perceptions of the role of portraiture prevail in people’s minds.