Business Veteran Simon de Pury on Why Portrait Commissions Are Building a Comeback for the Art Planet in the 21st Century

Each and every thirty day period in The Hammer, artwork-marketplace veteran Simon de Pury lifts the curtain on his lifestyle as the ultimate art-world insider, his brushes with celeb, and his priceless insight into the interior workings of the art current market.

When I was growing up, most of the paintings that have been hanging in my family’s home were being portraits of ancestors. Not being of royal lineage, none of them ended up painted by excellent masters. To an impressionable kid, some of them were outright scary. 

But when my enthusiasm for artwork awoke as a teenager, I turned fascinated by some of the biggest portraits ever designed in artwork heritage. Portraiture has been a key strand in inventive apply through the generations. The portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection epitomized for me the excellent of feminine and inventive splendor mixed. Ghirlandaio himself can not have been displeased with the portrait he was commissioned to paint in 1488, since he place on it a Latin inscription which approximately translated signifies “Art, if only you could depict character and soul, there would be no more beautiful painting on earth than this 1.” 

Domenico Ghirlandaio (Italian, 1449–1494), Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni, 1489-90, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain. Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images.

Domenico Ghirlandaio (Italian, 1449–1494), Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni, 1489-90, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain. Picture by VCG Wilson/Corbis by means of Getty Photos.

Some of history’s most poignant portraits have been self portraits by art giants such as Dürer, Rembrandt, Velazquez, Goya, Van Gogh, Picasso, or Warhol. “All is Vanity” was a sentence that my mom kept repeating to me when I was rising up. That expression came from King Solomon. Vainness has normally been the major motor driving self portraits and portrait commissions. It is that motor which right now is powering the phenomenal results of social media platforms these kinds of as Instagram or TikTok. The advent of pictures in the 19th century diminished the require for patrons to fee artists to paint their portraits, and the market for the apply dwindled. With time, images became an artwork form in its individual suitable and an further medium via which artists could specific on their own. 

Just one of my beloved queries to buddies is: “If you could have your portrait performed by any living artist, who would be your prime a few possibilities?” and the abide by up: “What about for artists of the past?” Most persons have to consider challenging right before answering the initially dilemma, and can only occur up with one title or two at most. Answering the 2nd one comes significantly easier. The two most frequently outlined artists in that class are Lucian Freud and Andy Warhol, artists who revived the tradition of portraiture in the 20th century. 

Eric Fischl, Simon and Ahn (2003). Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery.

Eric Fischl, Simon and Ahn (2003). Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery.

Freud took a very prolonged time to finish a portray. His performs had been completed from life, which means that his sitters had to pose for hrs on finish. His enjoy everyday living was really active, and at times affairs with some of his feminine topics would finish just before he had had the time to finish their paintings. He categorically refused to do portraits on commission.

In the early 1990s I was renting a flat in Holland Park, extremely near to exactly where Freud had his studio. I would give dinners and would constantly try to have a exciting blend of friends. On a person occasion, I invited Freud as well as Eliette von Karajan, the French widow of the good conductor. As before long as he sat down at the table, Eliette told him: “I would like you to paint my portrait.” He promptly shot again: “Never ever would I do that my art dictates whom I will paint! Eliette, who is much from being a pushover, answered equally abruptly and it was the start of a very intense and prolonged trade. The other attendees stopped conversing and were being riveted by the skirmish. Several years afterwards, Lucian would continue to talk to me “How is Eliette?” and Eliette would occasionally mistakenly contact me Lucian.

With Warhol factors had been the correct opposite. From 1968 onwards, he created several portrait commissions. He utilized the massively well-known SX-70 Polaroid digicam to choose snapshots of his sitters. This took no time at all. His personnel would then make a silkscreen which was utilised as the basis for the portraits. In the early 80s the price tag for one portrait was $25,000. Anyone who was any person had to have their portrait carried out by him.

My have prime a few choices to have my portrait finished by a dwelling artist would be: David Hockney, Elizabeth Peyton, and Richard Prince. I cherished the exhibition of 82 portraits finished by Hockney at the Royal Academy in London in 2016. Elizabeth Peyton’s oeuvre is made up mostly of magnificent portraits done of celebrities earlier and existing. Richard Prince’s Instagram portraits would likely be the closest equal right now to the culture portraits Warhol was carrying out in the 1970s and ‘80s. When you verify #selfie on Instagram you see it has been utilised at least 450 million times. The greatest moi excursion for that reason has received to be to have your IG portrait carried out by Richard Prince. 

But there is a massive snag with my aspiration record. None of these artists will agree  to do portrait commissions until you are their near buddy or the Queen of Sheba. Even with my extended dream list, which would contain Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald—who did the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama—Amoako Boafo, Cindy Sherman, Mickalene Thomas, Zeng Fangzhi, as effectively as photographers Mario Testino, David LaChapelle and Juergen Teller, it would be in the vicinity of difficult to get a portrait fee out of them.

Anh Duong, <i>Le Bonheur Paralyse mon Esprit</i> (2013). Courtesy of Galerie Gmurzynska.

Anh Duong, Le Bonheur Paralyse mon Esprit (2013). Courtesy of Galerie Gmurzynska.

I would be hard pressed to name even five great present-day artists who right now would choose on portrait commissions.

Nonetheless, the tables may perhaps be about to convert. There are two exhibitions using spot at the moment of artists who do portraits on commission. Anh Duongh’s very first solo show in Switzerland just opened at Galerie Gmurzynska in Zurich. Extended an insider tip amongst artwork lovers, she has above the many years built portraits of some of her mates this kind of as Diane von Fuerstenberg and major product Karen Elson. Her strongest performs, however, are her self portraits. Her penetrating gaze dominates these and they are the 21st century equivalent of Frida Kalho’s powerful self portraits. She has in the earlier exhibited in New York at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery. This exhibition reveals that her most new get the job done is her most effective, which is an excellent signal for a mid-profession artist.  

Henry Hudson, Sean Scully (2021). Courtesy

Henry Hudson, Sean Scully (2021).

The other exhibition is a person that I have the enjoyment to existing. “Henry Hudson—Microcosm,” is at this time getting s put in the artist’s East London studio. Where Anh Duong paints oil on canvas, Henry Hudson initially takes advantage of his iPad to acquire a photograph of his sitters. Making use of the Procreate application for digital painting he transforms these pictures into putting images, which he then prints on different surfaces using a U.V. flatbed printer. The ultimate outcomes are exceptional will work that have unique textures based on whether they ended up printed on slate, tile, denim, perspex, or dried flowers. He did the portraits of buddies, artists, curators, sellers, and collectors from the microcosm of the art entire world. Like Anh Duong, Hudson does consider on chosen commissions. It takes Hudson even fewer time to do an iPad photograph than it took Warhol to do a Polaroid shot. The only matter the sitter has to do is to select the size and the surface on which he desires the concluded perform to be printed. 

With artists like Hudson and Duong making a new market for top quality portraits on commission, the time-honored custom of society portraits could be revived when much more in the 21st century. Who will you opt for to do yours?


Simon de Pury is the former chairman and chief auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Corporation and is a non-public vendor, art advisor, photographer, and DJ. Instagram: @simondepury

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