Turn the Family into High Art

How to pick a portrait painter

Even if you aren't a millionaire, you can still have a painting of your wife posed like John Singer Sargent's riveting Madame X. Or maybe the family arranged like royalty à la Velázquez.

Modern artists charge as little as $3,000 for a head and shoulders painting, although $5,000 to $12,000 is more the norm. A family portrait might cost a mere $15,000 ($35,000 is more typical). Of course, a big-name portrait artist such as Nelson Shanks, who painted Princess Diana, or Aaron Shikler, portraitist for First Ladies Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Nancy Reagan, could run into six figures--if you can even make their waiting list.

First, decide how much you want to spend. Then, you can ask friends, visit an agent's gallery, or even turn to the Internet to find an artist. Many have their own Web sites, and other sites provide information about dozens of painters. A Stroke of Genius (portraitartist.com) features the work of 150 painters, and the American Society of Portrait Artists' site (asopa.com) lists artists by state, noting awards. It also has links to agents and galleries representing portrait artists.


Using an agent might eliminate the bargain artists, but it will let you compare dozens of portfolios and original paintings in one stop. Manhattan's Portraits Inc. represents 150 artists. The Portrait Group, in Reston, Va., has 50.

Once you find artists who fit your budget and schedule, compare styles. Some paint with such detail that the finished product resembles a photograph. Others use more fluid, impressionistic strokes. Some slather on paint à la Van Gogh.

Make sure the artist has experience with the type of portrait you want. Some artists are better known for painting corporate chieftains--New York artist John Howard Sanden, for example, has painted Laurence Tisch and Sanford Weill. Others have a large portfolio of society women (like Manhattan's James Childs) or families (Jonathan Linton, of Chatham, N.J.). While most portraitists will adjust their work to please the client, a few insist on painting warts and all. Find out which type you're dealing with before you pay a deposit, which could run half the final price. It might not be refundable if you don't like the result.

Finally, ask how the artist works. Some rely heavily on photographs. Others demand repeated sittings, lasting hours at a time. Of course, you expect the painting to look like the subject, but a fine artist will go beyond that, engaging the viewer with a personality that comes alive in the room. That's what made Velázquez and Sargent famous. Even if your likeness never hangs in the Louvre, becoming a piece of art could be a refining experience.

By Carol Marie Cropper

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