In this narcissistic era of ubiquitous self-imagery, when you can plaster digital snapshots of yourself across the Facebook/Instagram universe, it's hard to imagine a time when only a man of means could afford a portrait of himself.
Two exhibits opening Saturday at the Heckscher Museum of Art remind us that it wasn't always so easy to share pictures of yourself. "Before Selfies: Portraiture through the Ages," drawn from the Heckscher's permanent collection -- as are all the shows in this 95th anniversary year of its founding -- presents a sampling of portraits reflecting the evolution of social customs from the 16th century to the present. "Poised Poses: Portraits from the August Heckscher Collection" honors the museum's founder who, in 1920, donated his collection as well as Heckscher Park to the people of Huntington. The park's fine arts building, which housed his collection, has been the museum's home ever since.
HECKSCHER AND FAMILY
Like many successful men of his time and centuries earlier, Heckscher sought to validate, visually, his standing in the community and the wider world with a portrait reflecting the dignity he projected. Penrhyn Stanlaws, famous for informal likenesses featured in Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post, painted an oil portrait of August Heckscher in 1925. Over his shoulder we glimpse a painting of Heckscher's son, Maurice. In "Poised Poses," the two hang side-by-side, along with a painting of Anna, Heckscher's first wife, who died in 1924.
The collection includes a painting by popular 18th-century English portraitist George Romney. Some of the earliest works, such as the circa 1585-90 Dutch painting "Portrait of a Patrician Lady," are unattributed.
In two other galleries, "Before Selfies" ranges from, yes, a selfie-station for posting Instagram images, to a 1630 Rembrandt etching, "Beggar Seated on a Bank," a self-portrait despite the title. Similarly, William Merritt Chase, who taught plein-air painting at his Southampton studios before and after the turn of the last century, depicted himself as a Dutch colonel, after Franz Hals. In between are a Whistler etching, paired husband-and-wife portraits by 19th century Stony Brook artist William Sydney Mount, Matisse's 1943 stencil profile of "Monsieur Loyal," resembling Charles de Gaulle in profile, and Garry Winogrand's 1970 "Woman in kerchief and black shirt," typical of his anonymous street-scene photography. In his 1997 three-dimensional lithograph, Red Grooms playfully depicts a bare-chested Picasso at work. Looking closely at Alex Guofeng Cao's black-and-white print, you see that Marilyn Monroe's wanly smiling face is composed, pointillist style, of tiny Mona Lisas. Christian White, the Smithtown artist and descendant of Stanford White, represents his lineage in "The Garden Wall," a view from outside his studio and home.
"The selfie phenomenon," says Lisa Chalif, Heckscher's chief curator, "definitely had a lot to do with our decision to mount these portrait shows -- to make that connection for younger people who may not realize how unattainable an image of yourself once was."