The news that the Getty has purchased a complete master set of Irving Penn’s series The Small Trades — 252 portraits of working people that he made in the 1950s — reminded me of one of the pictures in the show of Penn portraits of artists and writers that’s currently at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York. As the Morgan points out in a wall card, for one of his writer portraits — of T.S. Eliot of all people — Penn used the same backdrop he was using for the Small Trades series, as though poet were just one more working stiff occupation. Which some days it must be. God knows critic is.
Penn of course got some of the inspiration for his Small Trades series from August Sander’s portraits of characteristic Germans. But what I had more fun with on this trip was taking note of the way Penn rummaged around in the history of painting. There was, for instance, a portrait of Man Ray I had never seen before (and can’t reproduce here because I can’t track it down on line) with an obvious debt to Rembrandt and Hals.
And then there’s his famous portrait of Cocteau…
that seems to conflate the hand-on-hip pose from Van Dyck’s Portrait of Charles I Hunting…
…with the contortions of any number of Schieles, but especially his self portrait from 1917. (Which would make the Cocteau portrait a very interesting blend of cocksure composure and crazy anxiety.)
And what struck me for the first time was that Penn’s great blowsy portrait of Colette, who looks like an unmade bed….
…might owe something to Ingres’ portrait of Monsieur Bertin, the ultimate bourgeois.