Ask a friend what an oil portrait looks like and you’ll hear a familiar answer: paintings of distinguished men, women, and families, seated in lavish clothes, beautiful backgrounds, and eyes locked straight ahead. They are undoubtedly historically and culturally important, and their surroundings denote none other than the highest strata of society. Names like Velasquez, Vermeer, Van Dyck, and Titian come to mind when you discuss the greats of oil portraitists, and to find their work you have to go the most prestigious of galleries, like the Uffizi in Florence or the The Frick in Manhattan –where they hang on walls, suspended in time in an equally luxurious setting.
Minneapolis-based, Bicycle Fine Art artist Jonny Kelson, brings these traditions of oil portraiture into the modern era by replacing figures found in classical paintings with modern faces and opening up the accessibility of the genre with beautiful commissioned pieces of families, children, and individuals. Jonny finds his inspiration from 17th century painters, such as Caravaggio, Rubens, and Van Dyck, all of whom he admires for their ability to illuminate features by creating a high contrast between the light and dark in the frame. Jonny’s portraits are characterized by a similar style: he tends toward entirely dark backgrounds, almost entirely absent of objects, with his subjects enveloped in a floating pool of light. He pushes the classic baroque style into a darker realm, bordering on gothic. Although he has recently begun a series of portraits with shadowy landscapes, he typically emphasizes the intricacies of facial expression –possibly a by-product of his day-job as a celebrated hairstylist in Minneapolis, where he scrutinizes his clients in the mirror, studying face shape, features, and skin tone, to find their own unique palette.
Jonny’s interest in portrait painting started as recently as 2014, after years of collecting and studying works on his own reached a peak. The story goes that one of the pieces he had acquired needed restoration (to be specific, an ear in one of the paintings), a project that Jonny took on himself. Since then, he has thrown himself into oil portraiture, learning, independently, the technical side of the materials (like how to extend the pigment, gloss, and sheen.) He finds freedom in learning the medium this way, and in not knowing “the rules,” that would be taught in a formal class.
This freedom from the academies is certainly apparent in his portraits, where he mixes the traditional and the new in transfixing ways.
In his painting, Vanitas, above, Jonny plays on themes of mortality established long ago by 16th and 17th century artists from Flanders and the Netherlands. Vanitas features a woman with a ghostly, deathly version of herself creeping up behind her. Although he does not use the typical vanitas marker of the skull to allude to death, he stretches the metaphor by inserting a wispy mirror image of his subject.
Jonny’s portrait, Ella, too, gave him room to creatively interpret. Ella’s family, who heard of Jonny’s skillful portraiture and work in Minneapolis, reached out to him to commission a painting of their daughter. Although Jonny typically opts for clothes and settings that are timeless, here he compellingly juxtaposes Ella’s distinctly modern look and youthful face with a ruff collar –effectively evading the label “period-piece,” but giving a nod to the oil portraitist’s lineage.
Traditionally, oil portraits were a prerogative of members of the royal court, who sat for and commissioned the portraits to solidify their standing amongst the royal hierarchy. In Velasquez’s portraits of the court of King Philip IV, you see some of the most opulent depictions of the ruling class –in sumptuous gowns, furs, and trappings of the ruling order –in paintings that immortalized their divine right forever. Even if the portrait’s subjects were not royalty, they were part of a class in society that monetarily had the luxury to afford an oil portrait of their family, and wanted both the act of commission as well as the illustration to be a symbol of their wealth. 17th Century Dutch society, for example, had a ruling elite class but no royal family, and their portraitists therefore defined their subjects’ importance and identity by surrounding them with markers of their occupation and what led them to the acquisition of their wealth. Tradesmen, for instance, would be staged with a boat or map behind them, implying territory they sailed through and made a profit off of. Whether royal or not, the subjects of these paintings are studied as archetypes of the genre and time that they were made, and are inextricably associated with our concept of the oil portrait.
Outside of secular paintings, artists were also commissioned by the church, to complete paintings of religious subjects –from biblical figures to church official’s portraits: from John the Baptist to archbishops. Ironically, in the religious works, you can see master painters took the opportunity, while under the auspices of the church and the biblical tales, to explore forms of expression unthinkable in secular representations. Caravaggio, for example, scandalously used prostitutes, beggars, and other “undesirables” of society as models for his saintly portraits. His figures appear as though uncovered by a ray of light (a skillful effect of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro,) with a realism revolutionary to religious portraits. In these works, he cleverly, and almost deviously, immortalized iconic images of common people.
Although portraits today may not correspond in historic significance, the shading and lighting, and attention to the figure’s face and expression, carry on these classical examples’ heritage of depicting the iconic. Oil painting still retains an elegance and precision lost in the modern era of our technology-saturated world. The sitter’s are, therefore, imbued with an importance because of the long lineage and associations attached to the genre. There’s still room for development and modernization, though, as Jonny proves in his work –in fantastical explorations of their possible existence. As he says, “All portraits have a mysterious narrative going on, whether subtle or not.”