She has painted them all – Mohammad Ali, Liza Minnelli, Glenda Jackson, Swoozie Kurtz, Jeremy Irons, even Princess Grace of Monaco, surrounded by her children, posed on the palace stairs. The current retrospective of portrait artist Zita Davisson’s work at the Southampton Historical Museum shows her innate ability to capture the personalities of the rich, the famous, the royal and the powerful in a way that is deeply intimate.
That intimacy is the result of the fusion of Davisson’s technique of working on raw canvas – which creates a pastel-like quality and adds a textural element as well – and her own considerable personal charm and intelligence. Walking through the gallery at the Southampton Historical Museum feels more like a visit with some familiar faces rather than a collection of stiff, formal portraits.
“They talk to me,” Tom Edmonds, executive director of the museum, confesses. “I feel like we are having a conversation.” Edmonds describes Davisson’s style as “not photo-realism,” but “capturing a person’s spirit.”
Davisson began her career as an artist early. At the age of 12, she had her first real show. Many of those early works featured two of Davisson’s lifelong passions – ballet, and horses. At 14, she signed with the Conover Modeling Agency, lying about her age, “I told them I was 18.” A stint as associate art director at Harper’s Bazaar followed, and Davisson also designed her own line of clothing. Art was always a huge part of Davisson’s life and it only took the right person at the right time to focus attention on Davisson’s skill with portraits.
Ruth Henderson, the wife of musician Skitch Henderson, fell in love with Davisson’s painting of a picnic. She remarked that she would love to be painted by Davisson. “She knew a lot of people in the theatre,” Davisson remembers. Through galleries and personal contacts, Davisson’s work became known and sought after, and of course, there is a story to go with every portrait.
Leopold Stowkowski, the famously temperamental conductor, sat for Davisson after he admired the portrait she had painted of his ex-wife Gloria Vanderbilt. Davisson originally went to rehearsal to work on the painting, but Stowkowski complained that she made too much noise. “Then you’ll come to the studio,” Davisson said, and the painting was completed to Stowkowski’s satisfaction.
Rudolf Nureyev was a man constantly in motion – great for a dancer, not so great for a portrait artist. “I could never get him standing still,” Davisson muses, remembering many rehearsals she attended, trying to catch that defining spark and translate it to paint and canvas. “Zita, I haven’t even shaved yet,” Nureyev complained. The finished portrait shows Nureyev on the move, using multiple images to show him flowing through space.
Davisson’s portrait of boxing legend Mohammad Ali originally hung at the U.N. “He was very amusing,” she says of Ali’s famous wit. She painted him as a painter, a secret ambition he confessed to Davisson. Ali looks powerful, but collected, a jar of brushes close at hand.
You’ll find portraits of some other powerful men at the Southampton Historical Museum exhibit. Rudy Guiliani had “three phones ringing at the same time,” as Davisson worked on his portrait at his office. Somehow, Guiliani juggled all those calls while Davisson painted. “He was talking to schools,” Davission remembers, “He was so positive and interesting.”
Kissinger was another subject. “He had the most amazing voice. It seemed to come from all around the room.”
Actors and actresses are also well represented in the exhibit, including Liza Minnelli, painted during rehearsals for Cabaret; the fiercely intelligent Glenda Jackson; Jim Dale, “the English import,” as Davisson calls him; and Vanessa Redgrave, whom Davisson painted on set while the actress was shooting a movie. It was a period piece with elaborate costumes, and Davisson recollects “it took hours” for Redgrave to get in and out of costume.
For her portrait of Jeremy Irons, who sat with his wife Sinead Cusack and their son, Sam, Davisson chose to extend the painting out onto the frame, creating a very expansive feeling. Irons was appearing on Broadway at the time. The family might have done a little sightseeing prior to the sitting – in the finished portrait Sam is drawing his impression of the Statue of Liberty.
Details were of the utmost importance to another famous subject – Christopher Reeve. He was wearing his “lucky, sailing shirt,” striped with different shades of blues and greens. “He was very fussy about the colors being just right,” said Davisson. The portrait was painted just a few weeks before the terrible riding accident that left him paralyzed. Although Reeve’s wife Dana kept some of the preliminary sketches, she could never bring herself to pick up the portrait.
Davisson has painted her share of royalty including a family grouping with Princess Grace and her three children – Davisson particularly remembers the princesses being a bit restless. Davisson will be unveiling a new work at a private reception on June 25 and at the exhibit on June 28, a painting of Prince William and Kate Middleton, now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Davisson had met Diana, Princess of Wales, at a charity event years earlier, a meeting that resulted in Davisson painting Diana. Although that portrait was not available for the Southampton exhibit, Davisson will be unveiling her portrait of the royal couple in which Kate is wearing the engagement ring that Diana was wearing in her portrait. It is one of the few that Davisson has had to do from photographs, but she has caught a lively spark in the tilt of William’s head and the warmth of Kate’s smile.
Davisson has owned a home and studio in Southampton for the past 10 years, allowing her the opportunity to paint some local notables such as Naneen Ford Richter, looking as breathtaking as one of John Singer.
Is there anyone Davisson would like to paint? “I sat next to Nicole Kidman at the hairdresser’s,” she muses, but “I’m just happy to be doing what I’m doing,” she sums up.
Portrait Artist Zita Davisson will unveil her portrait of Prince William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, on June 28 (to the public) at the Southampton Historical Museum, Rogers Mansion, 17 Meeting House Lane, Southampton, 631-283-2494. [/expand]