Portrait of An Artist
The story of one of the 20th century’s most widely recognized and loved works, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), which sold for over $90.3 million on 15 November 2018 at Sotheby’s in New-York to become the most expensive work of art by a living artist sold at auction
Portrait of An Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972
Acrylic on canvas
213.5 x 305 cm (84.1 x 120.1 inches)
Sotheby’s New-York, 15 November 2018
One of the most iconic images in the artist’s oeuvre, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) is a story of two compositions. The first, started in 1971, was inspired by the serendipitous juxtaposition of two photographs on the artist’s studio floor. ‘One was of a figure swimming underwater and therefore quite distorted… the other was a boy gazing at something on the ground,’ Hockney would later recall. ‘The idea of painting two figures in different styles appealed so much that I began the painting immediately.’
Hockney worked on the painting for four months in late 1971, but dissatisfied with the composition, in particular with the angle of the pool, abandoned the work and started afresh. He then travelled for several months with Mark Lancaster, and returned to the work in early 1972. The year 1972 was a very productive year for Hockney, as he threw himself into his work to escape from his unhappiness, often working 14 or 15 hours a day. Around the same time, he was working on his (unfinished) double portrait of George Lawson and Wayne Sleep (1972-5, Tate).
In April 1972, Hockney flew to the south of France to better visualize the figure swimming underwater, using the pool at film director Tony Richardson’s villa at Le Nid du Duc near Saint-Tropez to do so. Hockney’s studio assistant, Mo McDermott, recreated the pose of the downcast man, while a young photographer, John St Clair, was the swimmer. Hockney took hundreds of photographs based on his original composition.
Back at his London studio, Hockney assembled the photos along with photographs of Peter Schlesinger taken in Kensington Gardens wearing the same pink jacket. Hockney worked on the painting for two weeks, working 18-hour days, completing and varnishing it only the night before it was due to be shipped to New York for the exhibition at Andre Emmerich Gallery. It was first shown in the exhibition Paintings and Drawings, which ran from 13 to 31 May 1972. The creation of the painting and the breakdown of Hockney’s relationship with Schlesinger were featured in the semi-fictional 1974 documentary A Bigger Splash, named after the 1967 Hockney painting
Armed with his Pentax camera, Hockney travelled to a villa outside Saint-Tropez, where he staged hundreds of photographs following his original composition using an assistant and friend in an idyllic pool setting.
Returning to his London studio, Hockney composed the poolside photographs, along a selection of photographs of his former lover, Peter Schlesinger wearing the same pink jacket in Kensington Gardens, across his studio wall. Taking cues from the assemblage, he worked 18 hours a days for two weeks solid, finishing the painting the night before the shippers came to transport it to New York. ‘I must admit I loved working on that picture,’ he would recall of that fortnight, ‘working with such intensity; it was marvelous doing it, really thrilling.’
Hockney’s iconic swimming pool motif also arrived by something of an accident. ‘I came to Los Angeles for two reasons,’ he said in 2009. ‘The first was a photo by Julius Shulman of Case Study House #21, and the other was AMG’s Physique Pictorial.’ The house in question is a fluid, mid-century modernist glass and steel building nestled in the Hollywood Hills, while Physique Pictorial was a male fitness publication known for homoerotic photography.
While on the final approach to Los Angeles, Hockney was struck by what he saw. ‘I looked down to see blue swimming pools all over, and I realized that a swimming pool in England would have been a luxury, whereas here they are not.’ Without realizing it, he had discovered his greatest subject matter, and LA’s pools would become the setting for many of his major works of the 1960s and ’70s.
David Hockney visited California for the first time in January 1964 after a successful first solo exhibition at the John Kasmin gallery. The United States fascinated him, and Los Angeles in particular, partly because of the influence of Hollywood cinema but also because of the modernist building The Bailey House. As a gay man, he was also a fan of the beefcake magazine Physique Pictorial, which was published in Los Angeles. “I instinctively knew I was going to like it,” Hockney said, “and as I flew over San Bernardino and saw the swimming pools and the houses and everything and the sun, I was more thrilled than I have ever been in arriving in any city.”
Hockney painted the first of his pool paintings, California Art Collector in 1964, and the swimming pool became a recurring theme in his paintings, such as Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool (1966) now at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, and most notably A Bigger Splash (1967). that can viewed at the Tate in London. He painted a series of double portraits from 1968 to 1977, including American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman) (1968), now at the Art Institute of Chicago), and Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1971) located at the Tate Gallery in London.