Art in Small Bites: Abstract and realistic portraiture

Another installment of Art in Small Bites occurs in the Benton Art Museum on Wednesday, Feb 21. Today's tour covered the origins of the Beanery as a mess hall and other things. (Jon Sammis/The Daily Campus)

Recently the Benton has been holding a weekly series of 30 minute art lectures. This week’s was centered on the idea of abstract and realistic portraiture. Lead by tour guide Shoshana Levinson, an intimate group of six or seven people were brought through the art museum to look at a handful of portraits made across centuries.

Levinson began by giving the group a background on the Benton. According to her, the Benton had originally come into existence when the president of UConn from 1908-1928, Charles L. Beach, decided to hang pictures in the dining hall to give the agricultural students some culture. Interestingly enough, this dining hall was called the Beanery and is the same building that currently houses the Benton, which is the reason why the cafe on the lower level retains the Beanery as its name. Today the Benton is the state museum of art for Connecticut, which is why there is no entrance fee. The building is made up of three galleries, one of which, the Gilman Gallery, remains relatively unchanged. The other two change their exhibits frequently. Currently, one gallery holds the “51 Annual Studio Art Faculty Exhibition.”

Levinson called portraits “a representational event of a person,” otherwise thought of as a “recognizable or objective art.” Most of the portraits she showed the group were realistic. She talked largely about the color of the pieces. When she had the group focus on Alonso Sánchez Coello’s “Noblewoman and Child,” she commented on how dark the background was compared to the hands and faces of the painting’s subjects. She also noted the extreme detail given to those two body parts. Where the rest of the people were swathed in obvious, though still realistic paint strokes, the hands and faces looked completely lifelike.

Whereas, Coello’s painting was from the 16th century, she also showed one from the 17 and 18 centuries. Jan de Bray’s “Portrait of the Poet Jan Vos” depicted a poet from the 17 century. Levinson brought attention to his natural, loose hair and other features of his outfit. According to her, since portraits were so expensive, Jan Vos must have been very well-off for his time. She also showed a painting of a gentleman from a century later in Bernard Duvivier’s “Portrait of a Gentleman.” Unlike the poet, the gentleman had a powdered wig over his natural hair. His face was also more realistic, looking less like a perfect wealthy person, and more tired and possibly hungover like a regular human being. Both of these paintings included much more color than Coello’s piece.

“I greatly appreciate the time and detail that goes into it (realistic portraits),” fifth-year graduate student studying health communication Kim Embaucher said.

The only abstract portrait that Levinson showed the group was “Karl Gray” by Manierre Dawson. It used color, light and shapes to give off the idea of a face. This was done by making the face in the center a roundish collection of yellow shapes, and having the background be a mixture of blue, green and red shapes. The background might possibly be the outdoors since it includes the colors of the trees and the sky. Levinson commented on the possibility that Karl Gray is just a product of Dawson’s imagination and not an actual person.

“I liked how they (abstract portraits) were different from the conventional things that we see in our daily lives,” second-semester management major Evan Earle said.

The Benton is open on weekends from one to four p.m. and from 10 a.m. to four p.m. Tuesday through Friday. In the words of Levinson, “Anyone can evaluate art, anyone can!” So even if you’re not an artist, try swinging by the Benton to take a look around or maybe even attend the next Art in Small Bites lecture.

Rebecca Maher is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at