On a rocky wall of a grotto in the west of France lies the oldest known human portrait. The sketch is compelling in its simplicity: two horizontal lines for the eyes, another for the mouth, and a vertical line for the nose, using the natural bumps in the cave wall to give it shape. Drawn around 27,000 years ago, the primitive face stands as a testament to the desire of man to capture our own image, our own kind. Was the face a loved one of the artist, a friend, or a child? We will never know, but what we do know is that the creative instinct to enshrine the likeness of someone we love or respect has not died out in the intervening millennia. With today’s technology, capturing a face has never been easier – but a portrait reveals more about a person than a quick snap ever could.
Portraiture is a surprisingly adaptable art form, withstanding competition from everything from selfies to fine photography. Quick snaps on our phones are fun, in-the-moment shots of one second of time. Posed photographs capture longer moments and perhaps a chapter of a life story. But a portrait is magical, capturing the complexity of the human soul and the essence of a life. “If a photograph is a moment captured in time, a portrait captures a lifetime in a moment,” says Bebe Barnard, President of Portraits, Inc., the Birmingham-based institution with a long history of assisting families and businesses throughout the United States to create lasting memorials with fine art portraits.
“People are drawn to portraits because they tell a story,” Bebe continues. “My mom has an old portrait of an elderly man in what we believe to be the clothing of the clergy – a dramatic red cloak, for example. We don’t know who he was, but my family and I always found him fascinating. We used to make up tales about him to tell to each other.”
Bebe’s mother is Portraits, Inc. owner Beverly McNeil. “I truly believe that art is essential and changes everything,” Beverly says. “The harsher life gets, the more art soothes our soul and reminds us of all the beauty in this world. For these reasons, I have been involved in the arts for around 40 years. Some of my closest friends are the artists I have gotten to know during this time. Their creativity is so refreshing, they have such generous spirits, and they are always sharing their talents with others.”
Portraits, Inc. was originally founded in 1942 by Lois Shaw, a far-thinking and innovative art and antiques dealer and socialite. Today the company represents more than 150 artists from all over the world. Associates are located in cities around the country to connect clients with the company and guide the process from the initial selection of an artist to the finished piece.
The client chooses the artistic style (and thus an artist) with help from the trained professionals at Portraits, Inc. “Our amazing staff and associates make it easy to select the perfect artist for what you want and ensures that you have a positive experience every step of the way,” Bebe explains. “If you Google portrait styles on your own, it is overwhelming! We help you narrow your choices, depending on the medium you want, the style you like, and your budget.”
The options have greatly expanded since that unknown cave artist sketched a rough outline on the rocks. A look at portraiture through the ages could take, well, ages – but the most famous likenesses throughout history have been done in oils, which is still the most popular medium. However, pastels, watercolors, charcoal, and conté crayons are fresh, light ways to capture a subject.
Younger clients especially are seeking a less formal look. They want a more relaxed, fun, and energetic feel to the portraits. Smaller styles are trending now as well, to fit in with today’s open concept interior designs. Portraiture is very adaptable to a client’s design palette, too. The muted, neutral interior colors so popular for the home right now lend themselves very well to showcasing a portrait. Backgrounds can be chosen to harmonize or stand out with pops of color. Natural settings are both beautiful and on-trend, but a traditional setting will never go out of style. “It all depends on what the client wants,” Bebe tells us.
The process of commissioning a portrait is quite simple, but Portraits, Inc. prides itself on offering a stress-free, positive experience that is actually enjoyable. Artists are carefully matched with clients, and the finished product is the outcome of the genuine relationship that is built between the two. In no other way can the subject of the painting be truly brought to life. “The common thread of our clients is they want to commemorate, honor, and treasure someone they care about,” Bebe adds. This is true for family commissions as well as corporate ones. Most often, a portrait is commissioned on behalf of another – parents want to cherish children, and spouses long to have a lasting way to honor each other. Institutions use portraits to commemorate someone special such as an inspiring leader or a generous donor.
For those looking for fine art in addition to portraiture to enhance their home and office, Portraits, Inc. also offers The Gallery Collection, a curated selection of art from selected Portraits, Inc. artists. Available online only, the artwork includes still life, landscape, animals, buildings, and other special projects. A sister gallery, Beverly McNeil Gallery, is next door, with an amazing selection of art that showcases different styles, techniques, and mediums.
“It is so fun for me to have Portraits, Inc. and Beverly McNeil Gallery right next to each other, giving us an art center where we can host various exhibits,” says Beverly. “It gives me great pleasure to be involved with my daughter Bebe and see how successfully she is leading this company. Brittany Barnes is the Director of The Beverly McNeil Gallery and is doing a wonderful job of bringing quality art to the gallery. Both of these businesses are in very capable hands, and they handle all the day-to-day details while still allowing me to throw in my two cents along the way!”
The corporate office of Portraits, Inc. is located at 2801 6th Avenue South, Birmingham, AL 35233. Hours are Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., or by appointment. Find out more by calling (800) 476-1223 or visit portraitsinc.com. Beverly McNeil Gallery is located at 605 28th Street South, Birmingham, AL 35233. Call them at (205) 328-1761 or visit beverlymcneilgallery.com.
This article is sponsored by Portraits, Inc. All photography by Christine Prichard/Viewtopia Pictures.