Later in life, Édouard Vuillard was in great demand as a portraitist among the Parisian elite. We can imagine he sketched the wonderfully ad hoc bouquet in “Marks of Genius: 100 Extraordinary Drawings,” now on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, in some industrialist’s luxurious villa, between sittings.
Locally, the artist old Minneapolis families turned to for immortality was Helen Baxter. Longtime teacher Kitty Crosby was just a toddler when her parents, Catherine Piper and Charles Pierson, commissioned her portrait in a frilly blue dress—the sort of attire she would soon forsake for a life around horses. Crosby knows any number of people with similar Baxter pastels. Her friend Ned Dayton, son of businessman Donald Dayton, still has the portrait Baxter made when he was a year old—framed at The Dayton Company Picture Galleries. Crosby’s cousin Tad Piper sat for Baxter in 1953, when the future head of Piper Jaffray was 7.
There are also portraits hidden in the “Marks of Genius” show. That’s certainly Eva Gonzalès’s sister, Jeanne, in the luminous pastel Lady with a Fan. And the seductive subject of Egon Schiele’s Standing Girl is rumored to be his 16-year-old sister Gerti. (In Achille De Gas, Edgar Degas made no secret of portraying his brother Achille as a shiftless dandy.)
In my hometown of St. Joseph, Michigan (notable today as the birthplace of supermodel Kate Upton), you had arrived if you had your portrait done by art teacher Phyllis Rhoads. Only when my two youngest siblings were in grade school, in 1970, did it occur to my mom to hire Rhoads to do their portraits, a last-ditch effort to lock in her children’s innocence.
Pleasant as they were, the pictures were somehow left out of a retrospective of Rhoads’s work at a St. Joseph art gallery in 2008 (Rhoads died in 1997).
Maybe it was that my sister Reenie—later a nationally ranked swimmer—appeared to have no neck. Or that the pastel of my brother Stephen, now 54 and pictured above, always looked more like a Breck Girl than the mischievous boy who, just months after his portrait was finished, enriched our family lore by shooting a neighborhood kid in the leg with a BB gun.
Stephen remembers liking his likeness at the time—he says it reminds him of his favorite after-school snack: butter and sugar on white bread (perhaps the cause of his BB gun rampage). But he is also happy to let the picture stay where it is, stored away in the basement of my parents’ home.