The Business of Portraits

by Holly Hildebrand

Highlights from the Sonia and Kaye Marvins Portrait Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, April 19 - June 4, 1995.
Pathos and scandal. Celebrity and decadence. Glamour and poverty. Revolution and mystery. Old worlds and lost beauty.
These are a wide range of qualities, but, almost astonishingly, these, and more, were recently brought together in an exhibition of seventy-six images from the Sonia and Kaye Marvins Portrait Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The exhibition, “Highlights from the Sonia and Kaye Marvins Portrait Collection,” celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Kaye Marvins Studio in Houston.
The Polish-born Marvins and his family have made portraiture their business for 120 years, and sons Mike and Buz carry the tradition on into the fourth generation. In 1984, on the even of the fortieth anniversary of the establishment of their portrait studio, Sonia and Kaye Marvins proposed to build a photographic portrait collection for the museum not only out of their family’s long interest in portraiture but because as Marvins says, “Houston has been very good to my family and me and we wanted to do something in return.”
The result is a collection of rich diversity that adds strength to the museum’s holdings in photography. Anyone with a passing knowledge of famous photography will instantly recognize some of the images: Yousuf Karsh’s portrait of Pablo Casals, 1954, his back to the camera as he bends soulfully over his cello; Arnold Newman’s I.M. Pei, 1967, peering through a narrowly-lighted slit in one of his structures; Agustin Victor Casasola’s fierce Portrait of Zapata, 1914; Peter Stackpole’s rather coy Alfred Hitchcock gazing into his fireplace, dog at his side, a Picasso above, in 1946, the year he filmed Notorious. This portrait is a rare print because its negative, and many others by Stackpole, were destroyed by a fire in 1987.
But just as arresting, perhaps more so, are the lesser-known portraits, especially as oddities. Foremost among these is the very peculiar The Duke of Polignac, 1985, a series of cartes-de-viste by Andre Adolphe-Eugene Disderi, a Parisian considered the father of commercial portrait photography. The Duke consists of seven poses, the first of which are the strangest: they show the sitter, a man who today might be regarded as someone who needs to go to the gym, proudly showing off his physique while wearing only checkered underclothes. In other poses, he appears quite the dandy in top hat and fez, and in still others he assumes the quite considerable dignity he lost while revealing to the world how God made him.
For those with a taste for scandal, even if it happened ninety years ago, the portrait of Evelyn Nesbit, 1901, by Rudolph Eickemeyer Jr. must be a high point. An extremely successful portrait photographer from New York, Eickemeyer served a great many of the social elite in and around New York City. Among them was architect Stanford White, who designed Madison Square Garden and counted the exquisitely beautiful Nesbit, a former chorus girl, among his mistresses. This Nesbit portrait, considered a rather traditional pose (although she looks a bit like a down-dressed Marie-Antoinette), was one of a series that included some controversial and risqué depictions. When Nesbit’s mentally deranged and jealous husband, Harry Thaw, shot White to death at Madison Square Garden in 1906, the already famous Eickemeyer collection was made even more so through the notorious murder and trials.
Also in this school of scandal is a Richard Avedon work of a rather more pathetic, even ghoulish interest, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, April 16, 1957. Twenty years after he abdicated the British throne to marry “the woman he loved,” the former Kind Edward VIII states mournfully, even a bit stupidly, into Avedon’s camera; at his shoulder is the former Mrs. Wallis Warfield Simpson, her face a sad mask whose weird whiteness is only accentuated by the blackness of her hair and brows and the dark gash of her lips. If, as Avedon avowed, his goal was to make his subjects, shot always in harsh studio light, reveal themselves as “Symbolic of themselves,” he did so with this strange, isolated, exiled pair.
But if there is room for the curious and decadent in this collection, it does not elbow out the heroic. It is difficult not to be touched by W. Eugene Smith’s image of Albert Schweitzer, 1949, head bowed as if weighted down by the sorrow of the world. The portrait, taken in Aspen, Colorado, was part of Smith’s famous Man of Mercy essay for Life magazine. In Josef Sudek, 1945, Zdenko Feyfar captures the resilience of the artist who influenced the Modernist movement in Czech photography. Rumpled and a bit bewildered, Sudek looks straight into Feyfar’s camera, which records, too, the strap circling his chest. There is an irony in that strap: although the photograph makes it appear to be a restraint, it was an instrument of Sudek’s creativity. When he lost his right arm in World War I, he gave up his profession of bookbinding for photography and used the strap to help transport his camera. And if ever a man showed off his heroics to the public, it is the Victor Hugo photographed by Bertall in 1876 after his return from exile following the downfall of Napoleon III. Confronting the camera with leonine fierceness, Hugo displays the qualities that not even a Bonaparte could cow.
Yet one does not have to look into the faces of the famous to discover heroism. It is the determined looks of the impoverished Polish immigrants photographed on their Pittsburgh porch in 1943 by Jack Delano (Polish Steel Worker’s Family, Pittsburgh). It is in the us-against-the-world stance of the weather-beaten Arkansas couple, their arms wrapped around each other, in Mike Disfarmer’s Ed and Mamie Barger, part of this mysterious artist’s Heber Springs Portraits, an archive of working-class portraits discovered in 1973, fourteen years after the photographer died in anonymity. And it is in the face of the forgotten: in 1968, art historian and critic and sometimes photographer Bill Jay visited Weegee, renowned in the ‘30s and ‘40s for his spontaneous, almost quirky photographs published in New York news papers. Ailing and with not much longer to live, Weegee is portrayed in semi-darkness, his head slightly averted, one eye still shining with wildness and intensity. Looking at that one bright orb, you wonder what that man has seen and how he has survived it, how he has turned it into art; on the side of the photograph, Jay writes a poignant description of what he himself saw: the grimness of Weegee’s lonely life, but also the beauty that lay in the artistic archives crowded around him.
And of beauty there is so much in this collection. Some of it is so strange as to be unreal; an example is Julia Margaret Cameron’s The Wild Flower, in 1867, an ethereal portrait of a young, long-haired woman (in real life, Mary Ryan, a maidservant, Cameron’s ward and frequent model). Almost unreal in another sense is the glamorous Tyrone Power andLoretta Young, c. 1938, photographed by George Hurrell, a leader in the development of the Hollywood glamour portrait. In Hurrell’s lighting and pose of the two stars, it is hard to imagine that human beauty could be so perfect (which, is, after all, what the studios wanted their audiences to think).
Both the Cameron and Hurrell portraits are images of lost worlds yet they do not move the viewer in the same way as other images from the past in this collection. One of the most touching is My First Photograph of Maman and Papa, taken by Jacques-Henri Lartigue in 1902 when he was eight. The photograph, which shows the Lartigue couple in a garden on a idyllic day, the father’s hand lovingly placed on the mother’s shoulder, evokes not only the warmth of a son sub the sun: the viewer can practically feel the touch of summer and smell the scent of the blooms the Lartigues pass. Although one of the most joyous photographs of the collection, the portrait still can be viewed with a tinge of sadness: this, after all, is a world that no longer exists, a world that was not very far removed from the horrors of a sort of war humankind had yet to experience.
How that war came to be might be read in the faces of the three young men in Jungbauern, a scary image by August Sander. Dressed for a dance in 1914, as the clouds of total war were fathering, three young German farmers regard the camera with arrogance and a sort of self-conscious bravado; one wonders how history might have been different if more humility had been the order of the day. Even the beautiful portrait of Baroness Olga de Meyer, 1900, created by her husband, the fashion photographer Baron Adolf de Meyer, has overtones of death: the fading light falling on a row of graceful chairs in the background seems a harbinger of loss, a farewell to one century and a sad greeting to the beginning of a new one marked by massive destruction.
Although the Marvins collection is filled with such images of social and historical significance, it does not ignore modern images of celebrity. Annie Leibovitz is present with a breezy portrait of Pat Benatar, 1981, and in one of the most fascinating images of a contemporary actress, Sheila Metzner gives us Jeanne Moreau in a Striped Kimono, 19883, a portrait notable for what it does not show about the actress. Taken in profile, Moreau gives us no chance to see her most arresting feature, her mouth; instead, Metzer concentrates on the Japanese qualities of her composition. Kaye Marvins himself is present with a graceful portrait of the actress Erin O’Brian Moore, photographed in 1954 when she was a guest performer at the Alley Theatre. Son Michael H. Marvins contributes E.O. Goldbeck; taken in 1987, it is the last portrait of the pioneer photographer who took a “snapshot” of President William McKinley in San Antonio in 1901.
Seen together, this varied group of photographs puts a special face on the subject of portraiture. Diverse in its kinds of images, the Marvins’ collection provides an opportunity to explore not only the way artists look at their subjects but also at how we behold them through time. Hindsight can make many of these portraits clearer – and in a sense more mysterious. Perhaps that makes Edward Weston’s Spencer Kellogg Jr. one of the most emblematic portraits of the collection: photographed in 1920, Kellogg, a pictorialist photographer, is shown cloaked and in shadow, slightly blurred as he moves through a sepia-toned room. The image whispers “mystery” to us, and perhaps that, in the end, is what all these pictures are saying.
Highlights from the Sonia and Kaye Marvins Portrait Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, April 19 - June 4, 1995.
Pathos and scandal. Celebrity and decadence. Glamour and poverty. Revolution and mystery. Old worlds and lost beauty.
These are a wide range of qualities, but, almost astonishingly, these, and more, were recently brought together in an exhibition of seventy-six images from the Sonia and Kaye Marvins Portrait Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The exhibition, “Highlights from the Sonia and Kaye Marvins Portrait Collection,” celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Kaye Marvins Studio in Houston.
The Polish-born Marvins and his family have made portraiture their business for 120 years, and sons Mike and Buz carry the tradition on into the fourth generation. In 1984, on the even of the fortieth anniversary of the establishment of their portrait studio, Sonia and Kaye Marvins proposed to build a photographic portrait collection for the museum not only out of their family’s long interest in portraiture but because as Marvins says, “Houston has been very good to my family and me and we wanted to do something in return.”
The result is a collection of rich diversity that adds strength to the museum’s holdings in photography. Anyone with a passing knowledge of famous photography will instantly recognize some of the images: Yousuf Karsh’s portrait of Pablo Casals, 1954, his back to the camera as he bends soulfully over his cello; Arnold Newman’s I.M. Pei, 1967, peering through a narrowly-lighted slit in one of his structures; Agustin Victor Casasola’s fierce Portrait of Zapata, 1914; Peter Stackpole’s rather coy Alfred Hitchcock gazing into his fireplace, dog at his side, a Picasso above, in 1946, the year he filmed Notorious. This portrait is a rare print because its negative, and many others by Stackpole, were destroyed by a fire in 1987.
But just as arresting, perhaps more so, are the lesser-known portraits, especially as oddities. Foremost among these is the very peculiar The Duke of Polignac, 1985, a series of cartes-de-viste by Andre Adolphe-Eugene Disderi, a Parisian considered the father of commercial portrait photography. The Duke consists of seven poses, the first of which are the strangest: they show the sitter, a man who today might be regarded as someone who needs to go to the gym, proudly showing off his physique while wearing only checkered underclothes. In other poses, he appears quite the dandy in top hat and fez, and in still others he assumes the quite considerable dignity he lost while revealing to the world how God made him.
For those with a taste for scandal, even if it happened ninety years ago, the portrait of Evelyn Nesbit, 1901, by Rudolph Eickemeyer Jr. must be a high point. An extremely successful portrait photographer from New York, Eickemeyer served a great many of the social elite in and around New York City. Among them was architect Stanford White, who designed Madison Square Garden and counted the exquisitely beautiful Nesbit, a former chorus girl, among his mistresses. This Nesbit portrait, considered a rather traditional pose (although she looks a bit like a down-dressed Marie-Antoinette), was one of a series that included some controversial and risqué depictions. When Nesbit’s mentally deranged and jealous husband, Harry Thaw, shot White to death at Madison Square Garden in 1906, the already famous Eickemeyer collection was made even more so through the notorious murder and trials.
Also in this school of scandal is a Richard Avedon work of a rather more pathetic, even ghoulish interest, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, April 16, 1957. Twenty years after he abdicated the British throne to marry “the woman he loved,” the former Kind Edward VIII states mournfully, even a bit stupidly, into Avedon’s camera; at his shoulder is the former Mrs. Wallis Warfield Simpson, her face a sad mask whose weird whiteness is only accentuated by the blackness of her hair and brows and the dark gash of her lips. If, as Avedon avowed, his goal was to make his subjects, shot always in harsh studio light, reveal themselves as “Symbolic of themselves,” he did so with this strange, isolated, exiled pair.
But if there is room for the curious and decadent in this collection, it does not elbow out the heroic. It is difficult not to be touched by W. Eugene Smith’s image of Albert Schweitzer, 1949, head bowed as if weighted down by the sorrow of the world. The portrait, taken in Aspen, Colorado, was part of Smith’s famous Man of Mercy essay for Life magazine. In Josef Sudek, 1945, Zdenko Feyfar captures the resilience of the artist who influenced the Modernist movement in Czech photography. Rumpled and a bit bewildered, Sudek looks straight into Feyfar’s camera, which records, too, the strap circling his chest. There is an irony in that strap: although the photograph makes it appear to be a restraint, it was an instrument of Sudek’s creativity. When he lost his right arm in World War I, he gave up his profession of bookbinding for photography and used the strap to help transport his camera. And if ever a man showed off his heroics to the public, it is the Victor Hugo photographed by Bertall in 1876 after his return from exile following the downfall of Napoleon III. Confronting the camera with leonine fierceness, Hugo displays the qualities that not even a Bonaparte could cow.
Yet one does not have to look into the faces of the famous to discover heroism. It is the determined looks of the impoverished Polish immigrants photographed on their Pittsburgh porch in 1943 by Jack Delano (Polish Steel Worker’s Family, Pittsburgh). It is in the us-against-the-world stance of the weather-beaten Arkansas couple, their arms wrapped around each other, in Mike Disfarmer’s Ed and Mamie Barger, part of this mysterious artist’s Heber Springs Portraits, an archive of working-class portraits discovered in 1973, fourteen years after the photographer died in anonymity. And it is in the face of the forgotten: in 1968, art historian and critic and sometimes photographer Bill Jay visited Weegee, renowned in the ‘30s and ‘40s for his spontaneous, almost quirky photographs published in New York news papers. Ailing and with not much longer to live, Weegee is portrayed in semi-darkness, his head slightly averted, one eye still shining with wildness and intensity. Looking at that one bright orb, you wonder what that man has seen and how he has survived it, how he has turned it into art; on the side of the photograph, Jay writes a poignant description of what he himself saw: the grimness of Weegee’s lonely life, but also the beauty that lay in the artistic archives crowded around him.
And of beauty there is so much in this collection. Some of it is so strange as to be unreal; an example is Julia Margaret Cameron’s The Wild Flower, in 1867, an ethereal portrait of a young, long-haired woman (in real life, Mary Ryan, a maidservant, Cameron’s ward and frequent model). Almost unreal in another sense is the glamorous Tyrone Power andLoretta Young, c. 1938, photographed by George Hurrell, a leader in the development of the Hollywood glamour portrait. In Hurrell’s lighting and pose of the two stars, it is hard to imagine that human beauty could be so perfect (which, is, after all, what the studios wanted their audiences to think).
Both the Cameron and Hurrell portraits are images of lost worlds yet they do not move the viewer in the same way as other images from the past in this collection. One of the most touching is My First Photograph of Maman and Papa, taken by Jacques-Henri Lartigue in 1902 when he was eight. The photograph, which shows the Lartigue couple in a garden on a idyllic day, the father’s hand lovingly placed on the mother’s shoulder, evokes not only the warmth of a son sub the sun: the viewer can practically feel the touch of summer and smell the scent of the blooms the Lartigues pass. Although one of the most joyous photographs of the collection, the portrait still can be viewed with a tinge of sadness: this, after all, is a world that no longer exists, a world that was not very far removed from the horrors of a sort of war humankind had yet to experience.
How that war came to be might be read in the faces of the three young men in Jungbauern, a scary image by August Sander. Dressed for a dance in 1914, as the clouds of total war were fathering, three young German farmers regard the camera with arrogance and a sort of self-conscious bravado; one wonders how history might have been different if more humility had been the order of the day. Even the beautiful portrait of Baroness Olga de Meyer, 1900, created by her husband, the fashion photographer Baron Adolf de Meyer, has overtones of death: the fading light falling on a row of graceful chairs in the background seems a harbinger of loss, a farewell to one century and a sad greeting to the beginning of a new one marked by massive destruction.
Although the Marvins collection is filled with such images of social and historical significance, it does not ignore modern images of celebrity. Annie Leibovitz is present with a breezy portrait of Pat Benatar, 1981, and in one of the most fascinating images of a contemporary actress, Sheila Metzner gives us Jeanne Moreau in a Striped Kimono, 19883, a portrait notable for what it does not show about the actress. Taken in profile, Moreau gives us no chance to see her most arresting feature, her mouth; instead, Metzer concentrates on the Japanese qualities of her composition. Kaye Marvins himself is present with a graceful portrait of the actress Erin O’Brian Moore, photographed in 1954 when she was a guest performer at the Alley Theatre. Son Michael H. Marvins contributes E.O. Goldbeck; taken in 1987, it is the last portrait of the pioneer photographer who took a “snapshot” of President William McKinley in San Antonio in 1901.
Seen together, this varied group of photographs puts a special face on the subject of portraiture. Diverse in its kinds of images, the Marvins’ collection provides an opportunity to explore not only the way artists look at their subjects but also at how we behold them through time. Hindsight can make many of these portraits clearer – and in a sense more mysterious. Perhaps that makes Edward Weston’s Spencer Kellogg Jr. one of the most emblematic portraits of the collection: photographed in 1920, Kellogg, a pictorialist photographer, is shown cloaked and in shadow, slightly blurred as he moves through a sepia-toned room. The image whispers “mystery” to us, and perhaps that, in the end, is what all these pictures are saying.

Holy Hildebrand is a playwright, poet, and freelance writer. She recently joined the Houston Chronicle Interactive as a wire editor.

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