Chuck Close has long been one of America’s favorite portrait artists and an American treasure. Most of Close’s portraits are of Americans…his friends, celebrities, his family and himself. His work is part of the permanent collections of many major American museums, including the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, but, until now, has not been included in any permanent collection in the UK.
Just as the Smithsonian collects portraits of historically important Americans, the National Portrait Gallery in London houses portraits of historically important Brits.
So it was quite an honor when Close was commissioned to do a portrait of Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery in London, from 2002 to 2015. Before his service at the NPG, Nairne was director of programs at Tate and was closely involved in the creation of the Tate Modern.
It is a tradition for a portrait of the retiring director of the NPG to be commissioned, and Close was suggested because of his association with Nairne when a self portrait of Close was exhibited at the NPG in 2005.
I went away from the Gallery feeling both pleased and humbled that Chuck had responded so magnificently to the Gallery’s invitation. I hoped I had played my part.”
— Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London
Nairne traveled to New York and met Close at the studio of photographer John Reuter, who owns a 20X24 Polaroid camera, one of only five such large-format devices ever built in the 1970s and still working.
In an essay in About Face magazine, Nairne wrote, “I was over-self-conscious about my appearance, and aware that if I became a Chuck Close Polaroid then every hair and pockmark might end up showing. And I was equally conscious of my expression. Should I be smiling? With my mouth open or closed? How could I not look stiff and get some degree of warmth into my expression?”
Close created a water color portrait from the photo taken that day. “Flecked here and there with Chuck’s subtle choice of colours,” Nairne wrote, “it is a work as much about portraiture as about me. I went away from the Gallery feeling both pleased and humbled that Chuck had responded so magnificently to the Gallery’s invitation. I hoped I had played my part.”
Chuck Close donated the portrait to the National Portrait Gallery.