Life Imitates (Wall) Art: Who’s That Random Dude on Your Wall?

Today, the drive behind collecting old portraits feels more spiritually aligned to appreciating a beautiful object than honoring an ancestor or aligning with power. “We were strictly purchasing a vibe,” says Lauren Piscone, an interior designer and co-owner, with Allie Fitzpatrick, of the antiques gallery Galerie Was. The pair recently sourced two portraits, one of a young boy and another of a man with a pinky ring smoking a cigarette, from a dealer in France after discovering them in a storage container. “We were just like, Who is this guy?” Lauren recalls.

Humans are hardwired to respond to faces—it’s part of our biology—but there’s something particularly captivating about the people in these old portraits. Taína Caragol, curator of painting and sculpture and Latino art and history at the National Portrait Gallery, thinks this has to do with technology, of all things. “In this age of saturation of digital images and of constant selfies, antique portraits spark the imagination,” she explains. “These people posed and dressed differently. They attract our attention, because their presentation is so different from ours; they hold our interest and spark our curiosity in a way that ‘contemporary portraits’ we see on social media do not.”

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“I am attracted to old portraits, especially of women,” says Ivana Somorai, one of Rhythm Zero’s owners, pictured here with her partner, Alex. “Their smile, clothes, gestures, hand positions, lighting, shadows—I always wonder who they were and what their life was like.”

Photo courtesy Rhythm Zero

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Some of the portraits were sourced from an antiques store near the cafe.

Photo courtesy Rhythm Zero

Portraits are often easier to grok than other forms of art, which makes having a conversation about them much more accessible. (They’re also one of the best deals in art collecting, according to a 2018 story published in the Wall Street Journal. 1stDibs has seen a 9% increase in portrait sales over the past year and a 34% increase in searches in March and April compared to the previous six-month average.) “An unknown portrait impels you to imagine the story behind the sitter’s life,” says Anthony Barzilay-Freund, editorial director and director of fine art at 1stDibs. “They also add a sense of history—even if the paintings don’t actually depict your ancestors.”

For Michael Diaz-Griffith, executive director of the Design Leadership Network and author of The New Antiquarians: At Home with Young Collectors, the distance between the people buying portraits and the people depicted in them is part of the draw. It’s easier to have a stranger on the wall than someone you know. “Portraits are an aspect of cultural patrimony and legacy that’s very personal and that view colors our appreciation and reception of them in both positive and negative ways,” he says. “I grew up with the negative perspective of, These people are dead now and they’re like ghosts living in my house with me, because my mother held it. She did not want dead people staring at her.” Now, Michael is an avid collector of American folk portraits and Chinese export reverse glass portraits.

There’s an aura around old portraits that draws people in. “I actually think that the portraits chose me,” says Ivana Somorai, owner of Rhythm Zero in Brooklyn. The millennial-coded coffee shop is modern, with concrete floors and white walls, but the artworks are all antique, including a handful of portraits. After finding one in a thrift store nearby with “1890 UK” written in small letters on the back, Ivana researched it and learned that the sitter was likely a professor. A couple days later, the shop got a shipment from an old house upstate, which also included portraits of a mother and son that now hang in her cafe. “I bought both because I didn’t want to separate them,” she adds.

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