Can a modern family portrait be frame-worthy?

01 July 2020


A few centuries back, commissioning a family portrait was a simple process. Select an artist, gather around, then stand still for a very long time while they record your likeness.

All portraits were in a naturalistic style, and such subject matter was largely the realm of local academically trained artists; only dukes and kings were likely to commission artists of significant standing. These days, we tend to take family ‘selfies’ while on holiday, and it almost seems a quaint tradition to think of posing for a proper portrait.

Nevertheless, the family portraiture is alive and well, and it is a sign of luxury and sophistication to commission such a portrait—one that may be considered a work of art, rather than a dime-a-dozen digital snapshot to be posted on social media and never glanced upon again.

First, one may select the medium. Painting is now back in vogue. Family portraits tend toward realism (though of course, you could opt for a Cubist or Post-Impressionist version, if you’re feeling edgy), and the first step is to identify an artist whose style you like.

Cara Delevingne

Cara VI (Mirror), 2015, oil on canvas - ©2019, Jonathan Yeo Studio. Courtesy of the Artist.

Jonathan Yeo is one of Britain’s most highly acclaimed contemporary portraitists. Everyone from Damien Hirst and Tony Blair to Cara Delevingne and HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh have sat for him, and he remains one of the world’s most sought-after painters currently working. Yeo’s painterly, slightly impressionistic style satisfies the Frieze crowd, yet some of his pictures, such as his 2010 rendering of a pregnant Sienna Miller, could be considered as family portraiture. And if you’re lucky enough to commission Yeo, the painting will almost certainly command a good price on the open market, if you ever – heaven forbid – need to offload the familial assets.

Helena Bonham Carter

Helena Bonham Carter, 2013, oil on canvas - ©2019, Jonathan Yeo Studio. Courtesy of the Artist.

Also, consider the work of Harry Hancock, a British painter classically trained in Florence and now living in Spain. “The business of portraiture is complicated and deeply personal”, he says. “We start with a conversation about what kind of work the patron wants. Dimensions, medium, framing, price. We decide on whether to do sittings and a shoot, or just a shoot, as well as how the work will be collected once complete”. It’s up to the patron how involved they want to be in the painting process, which takes a good deal of time.

Photography is another way to go. It provides a faster result and is less costly - generally in the low thousands for an established photographer.

The most obvious choice is a contemporary digital photographer specialising in portraits. This is a solid choice, and a photoshoot will include dozens of shots from which you can choose a favourite. Consider Jesse Burke, one of America’s finest photographers and one who focuses on families. He is best known for a series called ‘Wild & Precious’, in which he regularly photographed his daughter from age three into her teens tracing her transformation, as well as shots of his whole family travelling and engaging with the wilderness. “When I’m photographing a family, it’s important to get to know them a bit and see how they interact. I want them to be themselves, for example taking a walk, chatting, and having fun. They will then be able to shine and that will allow me to, as well.”

So, expect to spend a bit of time with your photographer, so that they can catch you in a moment of un-orchestrated, natural interaction. Alternatively, you could opt for a conceptual shoot, in either an evocative location or a choreographed dynamic pose. Either way, the goal is to avoid the trap of awkwardly sitting and staring at the camera, which is no one’s idea of a great family portrait.

Then there is the retro option - photography that deploys a historical technique. It could be the classic silver gelatine print made famous by Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Capa, et al, but you may find some photographers who will take you back even further. Slovenian photographer Borut Peterlin is a specialist in 19th-century photography techniques, working with, and teaching workshops on, everything from shoots with a Kodak Folding Brownie camera to wet plate collodion negative salt and albumen printing. He allows clients to select a preferred historical method, and the results are strikingly contemporary and fresh in their retro vibe, not to mention utterly beautiful.

Whichever approach you choose, commissioning a professional portrait means that the result is something frame-worthy, a work of art as well as a memory.

Need advice on commissioning your own family portrait? Our art advisory and consultancy service can offer you guided suggestions and arrange for your sitting with the artist best suited to your needs. Don’t hesitate to contact for more information.

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