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Patrons aren't the only ones whose egos are on the line when they sit for a portrait. The artist's own vanity comes into play.

Brave Faces


When the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts opens its John Singer Sargent portrait exhibition this week, be prepared for two things. First, you'll see a stunning collection that'll make you wonder how portraits ever came to be regarded as the Velveeta cheese of art.

Second, you could be swept up in the national trend to be immortalized on canvas. Of course, it will cost anywhere from $2,000 to $20,000 for the pleasure. And lots of people — not necessarily rich ones — are shelling out the cash.

Here's how it works in Richmond: You'll sit dead still in a pose until your muscles twitch. You'll enjoy great ventriloquist-type conversation with an artist who will spend up to a year thinking about you, you and only you. And — depending on the artist — you could have little say about what finally hits the canvas.

Sound scary? Well, yes it is — for both the artist and the patron.

"Portraits are really particular. It's not like going to Glamour Shots," explains local artist Thomas Van Auken. "Painting someone from life when they're paying for it is very difficult. It's like doing your desk job with your boss standing right over your shoulder."

Van Auken charges $1,000 to $2,000 for a portrait, considerably less than the $5,000 to $20,000 standard fee these days in Richmond. But that doesn't stop him from insisting on total artistic control. "Basically, they have to be willing to give themselves to me completely and let me do my own painting around them, with them, about them," he says.

He'll flatly refuse you if you come in clutching your favorite snapshot, since he paints only from life. Don't even think about suggesting a prop.

"I paint the event of somebody being there with me. I like life. I like raw life," Van Auken says, as he pokes around at the two sheets he has draped in his Franklin Street studio. "I don't really use props except to control color. The purpose of this sheet is, well, to hide the ugly-ass chair underneath it."

Van Auken's attitude could be why only the bravest will sit in this chair. Luckily, in the art world every pot has its lid. The people who come to Van Auken know the deal.

"He doesn't lie about what he sees," says Stacey Farinholt, a recent patron who absolutely loves the fact that her portrait makes her look androgynous. "Even if it's raw or the person looks fat, he makes it interesting."

But Farinholt is hardly typical. She isn't upper-crusty, she's arts-savvy, and she's OK with the fact that she was reduced to the sum of hundreds of lines. "I realized I was just a surface that reflected light," she says.

Usually, corporate types and prominent families seek out a, well, gentler portrait experience. Loryn Brazier, owner of Brazier Fine Arts in Carytown, has been a portrait artist for 15 years and considers her advertising background to be a plus when it comes to portraits. "Basically, I'm a very compliant, friendly, pleasing type of artist to work with," she says.

It must be true since she's got commissions scheduled through 2001, though she is always willing to squeeze someone in to meet a deadline. Completing about a dozen portraits a year, she's done work for universities, courthouses, hotels, hospitals and lots of prominent Richmond families. Brazier's portrait of former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder was accepted into the collections of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery this spring.

Brazier doesn't have a philosophical problem with pleasing the patron. "A portrait is a description of a person, the artist's interpretation of the person, my interpretation," she says. "Capturing the likeness isn't a problem. It's really the spirit of the person that's hard."

Brazier will talk to her subject — a lot — both before and during the portrait work, adding photographs and props to get an image everybody's happy with.

"The sessions were very therapeutic for both of us," explains Dr. Grace Harris, a distinguished professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Social Work who sat for Brazier last year. "We relaxed so much more by talking about family, friends and issues of the day. Clearly, we developed a bond, and we have remained friends."

Brazier welcomes input from her subjects, even at the bitter end. Lots of people appreciate that generosity, especially when self-image is on the line. Even Harris recalls asking for better hair among a few other minor adjustments before it was all over. "I was very pleased. It makes me look better than I look," she says, laughing. "It's me, but a very attractive portrait."

For Brazier, ego isn't necessarily an issue. Not hers and not anyone else's. She points to the fact that people want to remember the deceased, their kids, or — the best in her book — to honor people who do such incredible things for society that they deserve every inch of a flattering canvas.

Van Auken is less generous about folks' motives for having their portrait painted, especially when the fees nationally are climbing to $200,000. "They want the bragging rights," he explains.

But in the end, he, like Brazier, wants people to love the product, regardless of cost. He'd rather eat the painting than give it to someone who will hate it.

"I would never force someone to buy a painting they weren't happy with," he says. "The thought of one of my paintings going somewhere where it's not enjoyed or appreciated is like sending your kid to prison. That's my own vanity right

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