A few weeks ago, I spent an hour in the historic Brennan House, located on 5th Street. The House was built in the 1868 for Francis Ronald, with the Brennan Family taking occupancy of the house in 1884. The house was lived in by various members of the Brennan family until 1970. The home is a magnificent example of Italianate architecture of the mid-nineteenth century, and has remained relatively intact since the death of the last Brennan (Dr. Brennan, who died in 1969).
The particular reason I visited the Brennan House was because I kept thinking about the hours I spent there as a child, especially about the walls and walls of painted portraits that filled the house. My mom worked for the Kentucky Opera during the years the Brennan House served as their headquarters, so my sister and I spent a lot of time there after school or on vacation days.
Despite being used as office space, the home remained mostly set up as, well, a home. The furniture remained in place, and the art work still hung throughout. Even as a youngster of 8 or 9, the rows of portraits in the dining room and parlor really struck me, and I’ve never quite forgotten them. Over the years, as I’ve worked on my own portraiture (using camera instead of oils, but with the same goal as those long-ago artists), the image of that home with all of those portraits hung around in the back of my mind.
I had no idea who most of the people in the paintings were, and I still don’t. They span a wide range of decades, with some seeming to be from the early 19th century, and others as recent as the first part of the 20th century. Though I would be interested in knowing more about those folks, it doesn’t ultimately matter -my enjoyment of their pictures isn’t changed by not knowing who the sitters were. That enjoyment comes from simply appreciating each painting as the piece of art it is.
If you think about it, it’s really no different than enjoying John Singer Sargent’s famous painting Madame X. We know her real name, and we know she was something of a notorious figure in her day, but the joy of looking at that magnificent portrait isn’t because we know the subject – it’s because Sargent rendered an image of a woman onto canvas, and in doing so, made her art.
Though the painted portraits in the Brennan House are not of the same magnitude as Sargent’s work, that doesn’t really matter either. Those artists used their paint and brushes to make ordinary people art – art that is still provoking an emotional response and is still adding joy, beauty and character to a home. I realize that this urge to tell a story using a momentary capture of a person is what drives me in my portrait work, and what ultimately must drive most artists. Every time I photograph someone and create a portrait of them, I’m leaving the story of them behind, leaving a piece of art for future generations.