Blog / 2021 / Riva Lehrer and the Intensity of True Portraiture

June 17, 2021

painted portrait of a white man with an intense gaze
Gwenn Seemel
acrylic on canvas
36 x 24 inches

Don’t complicate things unnecessarily: a portrait is just an image of the outsides of a person.

This was the message of my early career, touted first by a painting professor who encouraged me to think of a model’s face and body as objects to be documented in a superficial way. Later, this version of portraiture would be championed by a handful of clients who loved my style but couldn’t stand the idea that I’d try to reveal something of their interior life with my paintings.

painted portrait of a lovely person
Gwenn Seemel
acrylic on canvas
17 x 21 inches

And then there was my friend Paula. She could see that my obsessive portrait painting—at the time I wasn’t painting anything else—was draining me. She encouraged me to view people simply as inspiration instead of acknowledging their more complex role as collaborators. But, to me, the subjects had to be understood as the artists of their own lives, who then invited me to paint that life. That’s what made portraiture interesting.

So, while I appreciated Paula’s concern and I could see she was right, there was nothing for it. My portraits needed to be a touchstone for all the things the subjects loved most about themselves, no matter how impossible making that sort of image was.

Riva Lehrer portrait of Alison Bechdel
Riva Lehrer Alison Bechdel

“When someone lets me do their portrait, it’s because they imagine who I am and how they’ll look through my eyes. At the same time, I imagine that I can explain them to the world. It’s a shared illusion. Delusion. A folie à deux. We imagine that I’m representing my subject with accuracy, even though, no matter how detailed and objective I try to be, no one can capture the reality of a human being. A portrait is only a fragment.”

- Riva Lehrer in Golem Girl

It’s been affirming to read Riva Lehrer’s autobiography Golem Girl, even though I don’t relate to everything she describes. My art practice focuses more on making people feel seen and special rather than on trying to explain them to the world. Still, while our motivations differ, I love that Lehrer doesn’t shy away from the peculiarities inherent to painting people when you care about representing more than their appearance.

Riva Lehrer portrait of Finn Enke
Riva Lehrer Finn Enke

Lehrer even talks about the burnout that my friend Paula first noted in me and that I’ve experienced on and off throughout my career. It’s a feeling of being “overfull of the freight of others—their egos, their loves and pain—and tired of our small negotiations,” as Lehrer says.

Her genius response to burnout in 2011 was to start a series called The Risk Pictures, portraits that emphasize collaboration in a whole new way. For these artworks, she left the subjects alone with their likeness and invited them to make marks of their own. In the case of Enke’s portrait, for example, the little figures like the one on their knee as well as the sailboat and the mantis on the twig were all the subject’s contribution.

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I’ve worked with my subjects in plenty of intense ways over the years, helping them become icons and express themselves, but I’m in awe of just how openly Lehrer collaborates in The Risk Pictures.

I don’t think I could ever let someone else touch my paintings. As it is, the pandemic has forced me to give up on my rule of working only from photos I take myself, like with this painting of a mother and son.

colorful portrait of a beautiful woman and her baby, painting by independent artist Gwenn Seemel
Gwenn Seemel
Claire and Her Son
acrylic on wood
6 x 6 inches

I sought out this pair last year as COVID’s grip tightened and I realized I’d need to find a way to keep making money, even if it meant reneging on one of the first artistic promises I ever made to myself. Mom is an old friend and I asked to paint her son, whom I haven’t met except via video chat, as a way to learn about working from other people’s photos when painting children.

In the end, from all the pics Claire sent, the double portrait made most sense to me, and not just because it gave me an excuse to paint one of my favorite people again! The reference photo for this artwork was taken by Claire’s partner, meaning that this painting could act as a kind of portrait of all three of them.

beautiful smile art
detail of Claire and Her Son

I’m not sure what the future of COVID holds, but I do know that I’m not ready to drop safety protocols entirely. I’ll be keeping my photo sessions outside for now, while also leaving open the option to commission me to paint someone without meeting them in person. Over the last fifteen months, I’ve learned that working this way doesn’t fire me up the way that photographing a subject myself does, but the challenge of it keeps it interesting!

For info on commissioning me to make custom art for you, go here.

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