The V.I.P. and The Portrait

“When I stop being controversial, I’ll stop being important.” ~ Gustave Courbet

V.I.P. the acronym generally known as ‘very important person’ is commonly used today. One could say everyone is a V.I.P. And, from a generous perspective, yes, we are, each and every one, important. Thus, on the other hand, there are people who consider themselves very (self-imposed) important people, and often then, those V.I.P.s might be considered very idiotic people or very impolite people. There are varying matter meters from which to measure one’s or others importance. The free dictionary online offers one definition of V.I.P. as visually impaired person. When considering the aforementioned V.I.P.s while they may have 20/20 optics, their self-perception of themselves may indeed be visually impaired.

These days many companies market to people’s desire to be privileged as a V.I.P. by offering V.I.P. programs with little perks for their loyal customers. Even still, you must queue up at the supermarket, the movie theater, in traffic, the airport, and everywhere. I recall a typical scene on a busy day at an airport, standing in my place in the security checkpoint line, a Very Impatient Person behind me was speaking to anyone who could hear said, “Look! That man just walked right up to the security guard and was let through. Who is he? Look! There is nobody in that line over there. How do you get into that line?” Airlines have catered to this sense of entitlement, offering higher levels of status through their frequent flier programs which offer access to lounges, better seating, and exclusive queues. And, so do hotels, restaurants, retailers, and museums.

Paul Ramierez Jones, 2012. Image courtesy of

Art fairs also play to the art crowd’s feelings of self-importance and fear of missing out. Attendees clamber for inclusion to the pre-pre-previews, they compare notes to see who amongst them have received the most invites to the abundant exclusive parties where they can see and be seen amongst each other, and all the important people.

In this Instagrammable era, seemingly anyone, can for a moment, claim their fame. These blink-and-you-miss-them stars, Influencers, work hard to stay relevant and marketable. This culture of attention-grabbing individuals was exposed in the Netflix movie The American Meme. From my understanding this documentary revealed that those who strive to create an occupation as Influencers are trying to stand out above the very average person, to make their mark and livelihood. This over exposure by constantly putting themselves on public display may give them a title as a V.I.P., yet at a price of their own self-identity. The artist Richard Prince found himself in trouble, again, appropriating (arguably plagiarism) images from Instagram and recasting them as art prints.  Who is the one clambering for fame and fortune?

Historically, artists painted portraits of privileged aristocrats and nobility. Portraiture has been around for probably as long as there have been people, and artists became sought upon to paint, sculpt, and photograph wealthy, important, and famous people. The artist was hired to illuminate this power, beauty, wealth, and importance—to deliver a verification of prominence for these very important people.

In 1856 London established a Portrait Gallery to immortalize the important and famous British people and in 1968 the US followed suit opening to the public the National Portrait Gallery, a Smithsonian museum, to visually catalog important and famous people of the United States to be seen in image for all of posterity. Portraiture is well established and respected. Artists today continue to find portraiture intriguing and inspirational and a medium for investigating and recording history through the faces of humanity. In my mind, some of the most compelling portraits are not of V.I.P.s but of very interesting people, those who are often considered the very invisible people.

Arguably, the most famous portrait is “Mona Lisa” with her enigmatic smile, painted in the 16th century by Leonardo da Vinci. Little is known of the noble woman Lisa Gheradini, who most likely was famous in her day. Now her image lives on in a life separate from that of the person. Mona Lisa (and her mystery) is the V.I.P., very important portrait.

ML wiki

A contemporary portraiture artist, Alex Katz, mostly paints his wife, his main muse and subject of his art, capturing moments in time that also become symbols of contemporary culture through activities, associations, dress, and appearance. I like to think his portraits also show adoration, and he also turns to his friends as subjects. Rush, a compilation of 37 portraits of his friends, mostly fellow artists, to be hung together in one room at the average eye level. For him, it may be a tribute to honor those he esteems, or perhaps a visual name-dropping of the very important people he knows.

Alex Katz Rush

Portraiture reveals something about the person, perhaps in an outward interest or vocation, or in an inner psychology. Can the viewer identify with the person in the portrait? Within the portrait did the artist create something in the subject that relates to all of humanity, the universal importance we each possess? Great portraits transcend a moment in time rather than capturing a moment of fame.

John Singer Sargent became one of the leading portrait painters of his time. He captured his sitters’ character, and more so he gave their portraits a vivacity. In Portrait of Sally Fairchild, he aptly captures this young woman’s strong will and self-confidence. Sally Fairchild, a Very Intelligent Person, courageous and determined became the first female to attend lectures at Harvard University, albeit she was required to attend hidden behind a screen. When I look at this portrait I see a stunning young woman who is nobody’s fool.

Sally Fairchild

Self-portraits, may have been created in vanity or claiming a self-elevated status in society (think, Instagram) or as a practice in mastering a technique or as a tool before painting another subject. They may have crafted self-portraits as a method of self-reflection such as a writer keeps a journal or diary to understand one’s own thoughts or to cathartically release one’s demons. Rembrandt, Frida Kahlo, and Vincent Van Gogh have all made expressive self-portraits that reach out to the universe.

Gustave Courbet’s Le Desespere, 1845 is one such self-portrait that resonates timelessly and universally. It personifies madness, angst, psychosis, and desperation. Is this painting the catalyst that originated the phrase “pulling one’s hair out?” As a writer, I see in this self-portrait of an artist, the sometimes madness of the creative process; for instance, when one sits and stares at a blank page on the screen or a blank canvas and shouts “Where is my muse!?” or when one labors hours, months, years and then sits in despair thinking, “I’m creating from the depth of my soul into a void without an audience.”

Courbet was described as a “prodigious beer drinker, an unmarried profligate, a hulking bearded “Assyrian” who spelled badly and wrote worse limericks, a stubborn iconoclast who snubbed the Ecole des Beaux-Arts,” (quoted from Bernard Goldman) as well as a self-fashioning artist who exploited celebrity and controversy. He was in short an egomaniac. Not unlike today’s hyper self-promoting celebrity culture, Courbet employed strategies of self-presentation. Art historians could easily state he was a complicated artist whose oeuvre included political expression alongside landscapes, hunting scenes, still lives, portraits, and graphic nudes. He was an artist who liked to shock and Le Desespere could have been created in such vanity or as an expression of an artist facing Romantic disillusionment in the face of realism.


In the face of surrealism, at a student art exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney, Australia I became mesmerized by Brittany Rayner’s photo series Fractured Family. This high school student used her camera and projection to explore and unpack her disassociation from her Chinese ancestry. She explains that her only sense of connecting to her Chinese heritage is by looking in a mirror, being told stories from fragmented memories, and old photographs. In this portrait from the series, she projected an image from an old photograph of her grandmother onto her sister, capturing the pervasive image and impact that past lives leave on individuals. Her photographs transcend moments in time and into the universal.

black and white

One begs to question whether portraiture is a mirror or a mask.

In the following images of V.I.P. photographs and portraits, titles are unnecessary, because I assume, they are Very Identifiable People.

Mark Seliger, 2010. Image courtesy of
bill clinton
Chuck Close, 2006. Image courtesy of
Mick Rock, 1972. Image courtesy of
Andy Warhol, 1977. Image courtesy of
William and Melinda Gates portrait, National Portrait Gallery,Smithsonian Art Museum, Donald W Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, Washington, DC
Lee Foster, 2012. Image courtesy of
Richard Avedon, 1998. Image courtesy of



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