Few subjects in art are as riveting -- or revealing -- as artists' portraits of themselves. Whether created out of narcissism, melancholy or simple lack of cash (mirror images, after all, are cheaper to draw than hired models), they offer unique and privileged glimpses past the flesh and into the psyche.
Washington print collector and librarian James Elder never had the funds to buy self-portraits by Rembrandt or van Gogh. But money never stopped him. So fascinated was he with this special form of visual autobiography that when he died in 1981, there were no fewer than 500 artists' self-portraits among the 1,000 or more etchings, lithographs, woodcuts and drawings left behind in his estate. Elder was a bachelor and his collection was inherited by his niece.
Some 70 of these self-portraits have just gone on view at the Athenaeum in Alexandria -- the first chance ever for the public to see Elder's legendary holdings. Arranged as a memorial by friends and former colleagues, the show concentrates on 20th-century American artists, highlighted with splendid examples by Ivan Albright, George Bellows, Thomas Hart Benton, Antonio Frasconi, Rockwell Kent, Louis Lozowick and Raphael Soyer. There is an intensity in these images, a sense of revelation, that justifies his passion, and a visit as well.
There are also several self-portraits -- both prints and drawings -- by Washington artists known and unknown, good and mediocre, whom Elder seems to have collected with equal enthusiasm. With the notable exception of strong examples by Mitchell Jamieson, Werner Drewes, Frank Wright and a handful of others, such limited space might better have been used to display the best works rather than local ones, thereby giving a stronger sense of the overall quality of the collection. Those who watched Elder prowling the galleries over the years and wondered what he'd bought may well leave this show unsatisfied in that respect. One is left wondering, too, whether passionate pursuit of a single subject didn't lead him too often to make qualitative compromises.
But this show, titled "Portrait of a Collector," does say a great deal about Elder and what is possible on a limited budget for one obsessed with acquiring art. According to friends who gathered at the opening last Sunday, Elder was a shy, reclusive man who gave every inch of space in his modest Adams Morgan apartment to his art holdings, leaving room for only the barest essentials of furniture -- and three guitars. When guests came, he blew up an inflatable chair. A reference and rare-book librarian at the Library of Congress for 35 years, Elder once said he regularly spent half his Grade 12 salary on art.
Over the years, his collection -- initially devoted to first editions of first books by various authors -- underwent several transformations by sale and auction. His subsequent print collection suddenly tripled after the widow of area dealer Alfred Fowler left him 9,000 miniatures and prints that belonged to her husband. Most of these -- along with important etchings by Edward Hopper and others -- were later sold or traded for self-portraits. During his final years, several major prints had to be sold to raise money to pay the nursing home where he died at age 60.
Of those that remained in his estate, several already have been sold off, but there is some hope of keeping the self-portraits -- or at least some of them -- together in some public collection here to honor Elder's memory.
Meanwhile, his importance to living artists will not soon be forgotten by them. In a small glass case at the back of the gallery, a letter from noted printmaker Sigmund Abeles, offering his own work, reads: "The artists who have done enormous numbers of self-portraits have struck me as often being the most profound delvers into the souls of all men . . ." Beside it is a tentative pencil sketch by Elder himself, made just before his death -- a self-portrait, of course.
The show will continue at 201 Prince St. in Alexandria through Dec. 9. Hours are 10 to 4 Tuesdays through Saturdays, 1 to 4 Sundays. A catalogue is forthcoming. The Beasts of John Dreyfuss
A giant golden duck decoy smiles out of the back room at Fendrick Gallery, one of the more endearing of John Dreyfuss' sleek gaggle of shiny bronze birds, stingrays, roosters, catfish, cows and other members of the sculptural bestiary that makes up his first show. All cast in bronze from highly stylized models carved in wax, they all have a distinctively streamlined, Art Deco look.
The birds are best, especially the tall ones shown asleep on a single leg, heads tucked under their wings, their forms enclosed in sweeping curves. And while most of these sculptures tend to the decorative (a few look like blown-up costume jewelry), there is an allover refinement of line and surface here -- plus a balancing act -- that is bound to find admirers.
The most powerful piece in the show is the highly detailed "Night Crossing," which not only recalls Paul Manship, but ventures beyond mere surface to evoke the drama and fear of a bird with huge wingspan straining to take flight in the path of an oncoming car. The show continues through Nov. 17 at 3059 M St. NW. Hours are Mondays through Saturdays, 9:30 to 5:30.