Twelve Years of Portraits

The National Portrait Gallery of Kessa: The Art of Arabella Proffer will be coming out this December. It won’t include all the portraits I have done over the last twelve years or so, but well over 40 of them including some family trees. The family trees actually started as a way for me to keep track of all the portraits even though not every character appears in it, but putting it all together did make me go a bit crossed-eyed, in fact, there are many portraits yet to be painted that appear in the family trees. I’ll get around to them eventually.

I think this series started with the idea of ancestor worship — as cultivated by the European aristocracy — because I was really making portraits on fake ancestors for myself in the beginning. I did a lot of peerage research and even tried to read up on the Almanache de Gotha, but it got so out of control that I decided to combine the “rules” of different countries since not all adhered to the same standards. Titles, who could marry whom, and things like the tradition of primogeniture — which gave way everywhere except for England.

I also did a lot of costume research (necklines, sleeves and such) to lend mild authenticity when I combine it with my own punk and goth designs. Really to me, Elizabethan fashion is super goth. I don’t know why goths today insist on Victorian garb, because Elizabethan is just as painful to wear, but embellished and designed more beautifully. And thus, from the Renaissance to the Rococo period, I think the punk and goth styling would have worked out very well for the upper-classes. Let’s face it, tattoos, piercings, hair dye, all cost a lot of money. I think it means something different today than it did in the late 70s and early 80s. The early punks and goths certainly didn’t have mohawks or do these things, but for a while these were symbols that you wanted to be seen as an outcast or a criminal. Now, everyone does it, and it has become almost normal rather than rebellious. So I think nobility and people of importance would have used these as status symbols — the fact they could afford it at all. I think the more tattoos, and the bigger your mohawk, the more influential you or your family are. It would have made sense, and when I started to combine the two in my paintings, I thought it looked right. I didn’t want to over-do it with the piercings and stuff, but I liked little hints here and there (a safety-pin, the ultimate punk accessory, an eyebrow ring, part of a tattoo being visible).

The duties to hold on to a place, a title, or any seat in office, and to responsibility to both the dead and future family members to hold tight and improve upon it.
The whole concept of nobility is something Americans tried desperately to get away from, and today it is sneered at in Europe for what it is: a system that is no longer relevant. It was all tied to agriculture, military, and serving the crown. It is a system that has mutated from the middle ages — being the most opulent and ridiculous in the 1700s — and was on a decline until it took the most heavy blow after the 1st world war. But as an American, I can’t help find it fascinating — as do most Americans. Nobility are hard to come by, almost extinct. Funny enough, through the ages they have something in common with any wealthy, political, or important person: they all are in debt.

When you read about these people there were common themes. They tended to be eccentric, or too serious; they were always unhappy; very rarely did anything end well; and no matter how lavish their lives were, something was always amiss. But in general their expectations and the course of their lives was rather predictable. I think this is why my writings are very often mistaken to be real — they sound like something that could have, or did happen. And that’s the point. I think I tend to make my females more independent and strong, however. I’m more interested in them because back through the centuries women were seen as idiots, gossips, clotheshorses and meant for nothing more than breeding — they had the same rights as mentally challenged people, pretty much. They weren’t even allowed to look after their own children if the father died, the oldest son could have his wardship sold since he would inherited the estate and the title. This was especially true in England.

Portraits instead of family photos are something I wish more people would turn to as something to pass down. Going to Europe and looking through old books, they were what I thought was normal — or should be normal. I asked my mom after my father passed away when we were getting a portrait done of him (in all seriousness) and she laughed telling me what bad taste that would be. I was 9, and didn’t think it was bad taste at all. I guess these portraits started as a way of me having my own little gallery of ancestors past. To me it would be no different from having photos out, and at least it can be considered an heirloom. Then again, having to put up with a huge portrait of a mother-in-law you hate in your home — I could see that being annoying. Again, it all goes back to ancestor worship, which I don’t think many Americans are interested in unless you come from well-to-do east coast stock or are of the old Southern aristocracy, and even then.

It’s a subject I’ll always explore and research for fun, and I don’t see this series ending anytime soon. We’ll see what the next twelve years brings.

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3 Responses to “Twelve Years of Portraits”


  1. 1 Lee 09/20/2011 at 9:09 pm

    What an interesting read! Such an insightful exploration of portraiture as a genre, and how it is relevant – or could be – in today’s world. Your art is beautiful & I loved reading about your thought-processes in creating it.

  2. 2 Jaime 09/20/2011 at 10:35 pm

    the paintings are fabulous. it is interesting to read what you know about all this stuff. i’ve thought for a while now, the people without the tattoos and piercings are the weird ones now… funny.

  3. 3 vendettabella 09/21/2011 at 9:24 am

    Thanks kids! I remember one time my mom told me when I was 15 when I was all punked out that I looked like I was wearing a uniform, and she was right. I got a tattoo when I was 15 as well; no one really had them at that point, especially in Ann Arbor. Then by senior year of high school in Orange Country, our year book had a front page insert of all the tattoos kids had at my school — it was quite a few. I didn’t feel so rebellious at that point.


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