There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882)
Let your inner-child come out and suggest a caption for this interesting juxtaposition.
In portraiture, the relationship between painter and subject can dramatically alter the feel of the painting. Consequently, painting a live model versus painting from a recreated image generates a different pictorial awareness. Charleston artist and writer Mary Whyte says of painting from life, “Everything an artist creates is done in a solitary way except when painting another human being. Then there are two people involved. One who changes the model forever, and one who forever changes the artist.”
Whyte is known for her distinctive portraits. In Artist she depicts a young girl who has completed a drawing of a cat upon an already graffiti-covered wall. As the audience, we have never seen this girl before, however Whyte’s balance of loosely expressive watercolor brushwork and controlled details express a personal familiarity with her subject. The contrasts in brushwork and tonalities—the white of the dress and walls versus the black of her hair and graffiti—ultimately harmonize in a way that enables the viewer to connect to the work of art.
Miss Percy Ferguson, another young girl in a white sundress, is a seemingly similar subject, yet her portrait by William Aiken Walker is devoid of the soulfulness so palpable in Whyte’s portrait. There is no doubt of Walker’s skill in this painting however: the details of the background and dress are meticulously rendered and colored with a sophisticated attention to light effects and texture. Walker, an itinerant painter, often traveled along the Mississippi River. On one of these trips he met General Samuel Wragg Ferguson, a Civil War veteran, plantation owner, and the father of Miss Percy. Walker was commissioned to paint this portrait of Ferguson’s daughter, but given the stiffness of her pose and mask-like face, it is probable that Walker worked not from life but rather from a photograph. Though the landscape is beautifully handled, Miss Ferguson’s face lacks the animation and spirit present in Artist.