February 12, 2009 - LA Art House owner Margaret Perenchio featured in NY Times portraiture article


Enough About Me. Like My Portrait?

ALTHOUGH digital images of Hollywood stars and executives are multiplying faster than they can be viewed, the images that exert the strongest pull on many of them, it seems, are the painted portraits they hang over their sofas. In recent interviews, several portraitists who specialize in painting such clients say they had more commissions last year than ever before.

Still, even for those used to being trailed by a crowd of photographers and sized up in every waking moment, living with a portrait can cause a certain amount of angst. What, after all, does hanging a life-size portrait of yourself in your living room or bedroom risk saying to others about the depth of your narcissism? Even in a town famous for ardent self-love, isnít there a real possibility that your portrait will make you the butt of jokes at the Grill?

"It can be a little, how do I say it delicately, egomaniacal to have a big painting of yourself in your living room," said Margaret Rose Perenchio, a portraitist and the wife of the billionaire media entrepreneur A. Jerrold Perenchio. She has painted several celebrities, including Salma Hayek, Luciano Pavarotti and Leslie Moonves, the chief executive of the CBS Corporation. But despite a fear of appearing self-important, she added, "I think they like" the feeling of owning one.

Take Joel Schumacher, the director of "St. Elmoís Fire" and "Batman Forever," who has an eight-foot-high portrait of himself that has caused him much disquiet. About 10 years ago, he agreed to be painted by Stephen Douglas, a Los Angeles friend and artist who was creating a series of life-size portraits for a show.

The portrait involved no sittings and very little commitment. Mr. Douglas came to Mr. Schumacherís Bel Air house one afternoon and took a series of Polaroids of him in baggy dungarees, his shoulder-length gray hair loose around his neck. Mr. Schumacher did not think much about the portrait after that.

But several months later, Arnon Milchan, the executive producer of Mr. Schumacherís film "Falling Down," delivered the oversize canvas to Mr. Schumacherís home, saying he had seen it in Mr. Douglasís studio and bought it for the director as a gift.

Mr. Schumacher was grateful, but he was faced with a quandary. Where was he going to put it? It wasnít as if he did not have enough space. And it wasnít as if he couldnít bear to look at his own face: Mr. Schumacher had modeled for several photographers, including Richard Avedon, Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber, and some of the results line the walls of his home. His bedroom is cluttered with snapshots of himself with the stars of movies he has directed, including Sandra Bullock, Colin Farrell and Jim Carrey.

But having so large a painting of himself in his living room made even Mr. Schumacher ó who described himself as "a total visual hedonist" ó uncomfortable. "Everyone would walk in and gasp," he said. "Then they would talk about me later. ĎDid you know Joel has a full-length portrait of himself? In his living room? Donít you think thatís a little much?í " Mr. Schumacher winced at the idea, and said, "I mean, am I not narcissistic enough already?"

So the portrait was dispatched to a walk-in closet in his bedroom ó where, although it is less conspicuous than it might be, it has nevertheless been positioned with great care. Hung against the backdrop of a carved mahogany wall, it is illuminated from above whenever the closet door is open (which it always is, Mr. Schumacher said, when Mr. Milchan comes over). But even hidden away there, it garners nearly as much attention as if it were in the living room. On more than one occasion he has had to shoo a guest out of the closet.

"Hollywood wives have a tendency to go into my closet without asking," he said. "They want to see it."

Donald Bachardy, the Santa Monica portraitist who is known for his drawings and paintings of celebrities like Jack Nicholson and Bette Davis, said his commissions from celebrities and Hollywood executives have increased in recent years.

In 2006, he said, he was flown to France to paint a pregnant Angelina Jolie. He contends that if a subject ó famous or otherwise ó is uncomfortable with a portrait, it is probably not really because of modesty, or concern about appearances, but because the subject has not picked the right painter.

"People get it backwards," said Mr. Bachardy, 74. "They think it is the subject that is important. It is not. Itís the artist. They could get over that very easily if they chose an artist they really admired."

Even in this economic downturn, artists say, peopleís interest in having their portraits painted has not waned. Yet like many things in Hollywood, the choice of painter is often dictated by social connections. Mr. Moonves said he never saw himself as the type to sit for a painted portrait ó "I probably would be embarrassed," he said. Instead he and his wife, the newscaster Julie Chen, had always preferred to be photographed. "We have pictures of ourselves all over the place," he said.

But when Ms. Perenchio, a close friend whose husband is the former chairman of Univision, the nationís largest Spanish-language network, asked if she could paint them, they agreed.

Ms. Perenchio used a photograph she had taken when the couple were on vacation with her and her husband in Capri (which also serves as a backdrop for her portrait of her friend Shakira Caine, Michael Caineís wife). Later, in New York, she took more photographs of Ms. Chen with full makeup. "So sheíd look glamorous," Ms. Perenchio said. "I didnít feel like she wanted to be completely au naturel." Rather than charging Mr. Moonves her usual fee of about $12,000, she asked him to make a donation to a charity.

The Moonvesesí portrait was unveiled in October when Ms. Perenchio opened her gallery, LA Art House, in West Hollywood. The show also included reproductions of some of her celebrity portraits, including a pregnant Ms. Hayek, Ms. Perenchioís neighbor, holding a rose, and Mr. Pavarotti sitting in Central Park. Ms. Perenchio said she understands that being the subject can be difficult for some people, adding that she has two friends who have posed for Julian Schnabel and keep the portraits in storage.

But Mr. Moonves took the portrait home, and said he had none of the angst Mr. Schumacher felt. He hung it in the den off the rose garden in his Beverly Hills home and invited friends over to view it. "We love it," he said. "It looks so right there, in the room where we hang out most."

Sometimes where a portrait is hung depends not on the subjectís comfort with the idea of the painting, but on the specifics of the art itself. In the early 1980s, Stacey Winkler and her husband, Henry Winkler, best known as the Fonz on the 1970s sitcom "Happy Days," commissioned Paul Jasmin, a photographer, to create a portrait of the two ó a 4-by-2-foot photograph taken on the Paramount Studios lot that was then overlaid with sepia-colored paint. After keeping it in the library for years, they moved the portrait to the top of a staircase near the front door, where it now hangs.

Upon seeing it moved to the more prominent spot, Ms. Winkler said, her children inquired, "You havenít turned into those kind of people, have you?" She added: "But we never had the feeling we were putting up a big picture of ourselves. We just liked it."

Ms. Winkler, though, had a different reaction to a portrait recently painted by a friend, Maxine Smith, who like Ms. Perenchio is the wife of a successful media executive, Gary Smith. Known for using bold blocks of color to depict her subjects, Ms. Smith, working from a photograph, showed Ms. Winkler in a vibrant hot pink one-piece bathing suit, skirt and big hat.

Ms. Winkler was less than thrilled, not because she did not appreciate her friendís artistry, but because of what she was wearing. Even though she had approved the use of the photo, Ms. Winkler said she decided that "I cannot have a picture of myself in a bathing suit in the house ó it felt like so much vanity."

Ms. Winklerís husband briefly kept it at his office, but now the portrait, which Ms. Smith gave her as a gift, hangs in a rarely used guest room.

Ms. Smith, for her part, said friends often ask to have their portraits painted, but it is a tricky business because the desire to please can easily overwhelm the desire to stay true to her artistic vision. "In truth, it can be a bit awkward," she said.

Few people have sat for as many portraits as George Hamilton, the movie actor who recently took a turn on the ABC hit "Dancing With the Stars." He has been painted eight times since 1963, he said. His first portrait was destroyed after it blew off the top of his car on a trip to Palm Springs. Two others are in storage. But another from the late 1980s, a 9-by-4-foot canvas by Ralph Wolfe Cowan, a Palm Beach painter, now takes up a good portion of a wall in the living room of his Los Angeles apartment.

"I never found it terribly exciting to be painted," he said. "Itís like sitting through an M.R.I."

"The worst part is if they whistle or, even worse, they listen to their own music," he said of the artists for whom he had sat. But ultimately, he said, he liked the results.

Unlike Mr. Schumacher, Mr. Hamilton, 69, is thrilled to be flamboyantly on display in his home (where a full-size portrait of his mother also hangs). Portraying him as a cross between Heathcliff and a Lothario from the cover of a romance novel, his painting was kept for years in a bar he owned in Beverly Hills. He refused to clean it; cigar smoke darkened the canvas so he now appears, he said, "as tan as I can be." When newcomers visited the bar, he demanded that they toast it.

"I had the rare privilege of never drinking alone," he said in a recent interview.

For him, the portrait represents an idea of what Hollywood was in the 1930s and í40s: glamorous, romantic, larger than life and a little outrageous. "You want the atmosphere to match the mood you want to create" in a bar or a home, he said. "You can create fantasy where there would otherwise be stark reality." The trick, he added, is to not take oneself too seriously.

One happy result of having a gigantic portrait of himself is that he can tell, depending on how people react to it, whether they will become friends.

"I got the joke before I was the joke," he said. "The people who donít get it, the portrait on the wall, well, they donít respond, on purpose. If the person thinks that is normal, then I think, Eww. We are not going to get along."

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