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An artist's frequent brushes with fame

Painter Zita Davisson sits for a portrait in

Painter Zita Davisson sits for a portrait in her studio in Manhattan. (May 2, 2011.) Credit: Photo by Agaton Strom

We all see the images of celebrities and politicians splashed across gossip magazines, but rarely do we get insight to their personalities through art. That changes on Tuesday with the opening of “Famous Faces: Portraits by Zita Davisson” at Southampton Historical Museums and Research Center’s Rogers Mansion.

The exhibit marks the first retrospective by acclaimed portrait painter Zita Davisson, showcasing 22 pieces of work from the 1970s to present day. From Liza Minnelli, Muhammad Ali, Henry Kissinger and Christopher Reeve to Princess Grace of Monaco, Leopold Stokowski and Rudy Giuliani, visitors will get an all-access pass to famous faces at work and at leisure.

Portrait of the artist

In her Upper East Side studio with nearly floor-to-ceiling windows, Davisson — wearing a neutral ensemble, blond bob and impeccable makeup — exudes the same grace and genteel quality that’s evident in her oils on raw canvas.

“I just think I’m lucky, because now I’m painting the children, and sometimes grandchildren, of people I painted a long time ago,” she says, reflecting on the career that has lead her to paint more than 1,000 people and be featured in exhibitions across the world.

Davisson has been sketching people since she was a child decades ago — she politely declines to tell her age — while traveling between New York and Switzerland with her family. She describes her aesthetic as “a little bit sketchy” to create “impressions of people.” Those impressions come from three, one-hour live sittings, since she rarely paints from photos.

“I like to paint from life, because it’s so much more interesting. You get to know the person,” she says.

Famous figures often seek Davisson out for commissions, which has landed her in a few interesting positions. Like the time she sketched Stokowski during one of the orchestra conductor’s rehearsals at Carnegie Hall and dropped her pencil. In response, he halted the performance and made the musicians start all over again.

“It was horrible,” she recalls. “He didn’t say anything. But the whole orchestra looked like they wanted to murder me.”

The exhibit

Stokowski’s portrait is just one of the paintings featured in this exhibit, which are all on loan, duplicated or owned by Davisson. None are for sale.

Tammy Grimes reclines in a bathrobe on a chaise longue. Giuliani gives off a sheepish grin in his office with the city’s skyscrapers in the background. Kissinger talks in mid-sentence, with his coifed head slightly cocked, legs crossed and hands suspended in the air, as if punctuating a word.

“It’s great work. It’s very much in the English portraiture tradition going back to Romney and Hans] Holbein,” says Tom Edmonds, the museum’s executive director. “It’s very lifelike, but magic happens because she’s able to capture the spirit of the person she’s rendering,” he says.

The painting process

To convey personality, Davisson says she learns the subject’s body language and often asks questions.

“I think in talking to them, you have to learn the way they see themselves, which is not always the way you see them, and not always the way their husband or best friend sees them,” she says.

Ali, for example, is depicted as an artist rather than a fighter in his portrait. “He was telling me that his father was a house painter and that he and his father used to go around when he was younger and they’d paint murals in churches,” she says.

Despite creating the likeness of Princess Diana (“She was just absolutely charming and talkative and very, very lovely”), Minnelli (“You don’t even have to paint her. She sort of paints herself”) and Reeve (“I think he’s probably the world’s most handsome man”), Davisson says she’s never been nervous meeting notable figures.

“I just thought they were very interesting people,” she says, smiling.

‘Famous Faces: Portraits by Zita Davisson’

WHEN | WHERE Beginning Tuesday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays through Sept. 3, Rogers Mansion, Southampton Historical Museums and Research Center, 17 Meeting House Lane, Southampton

INFO 631-283-2494 or southamptonhistoricalmuseum.org

ADMISSION $4 (free ages 17 and younger)

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