Portraits by Petrescu
Portraits do not play a large part in Petrescu's total work and he does not paint them on commission. Moreover, people rarely figure in his paintings, apart from some interiors of artists' studios and his paintings of theatre stages, especially magicians. In these, it is true that there are persons, but they are relatively stylized and almost never have recognizable faces. His icon based works likewise have Christs, apostles and saints, but they are generally highly abstract and almost never have detailed features. However, there is a long series of explicit portraits, done at virtually all periods of his painting life. With a few exceptions, they are either self-portraits or ones of his wife, Mariana.
Early in his career, when his skill was developing and when he was working as a medical doctor, he did many portraits and studies of his wife. This was presumably partly for pleasure, but as with many artists, a wife provided a well-known and available model. Mariana was painted in many forms, full length and bust, but mainly half -length and head only. In all she is a beautiful but serious person, in marked contrast to her innate cheerfulness. There is rarely a real smile, but this is characteristic of all Petrescu portraits, whether the subject is happy or serious. A good many of the portraits of Mariana are pen and ink, done directly from the seated model.
There are, however, a number of painted portraits and self-portraits. A particularly fine pair were painted for exhibitions that Petrescu had in New York and Washingtonin 1978. One is of Mariana and the other a self-portrait. They were significantly larger than most of his portraits, which are generally small to mid-size, and were relatively realistic works. Two others pairs of such portraits were painted in the mid-1970s, one pair quite realistic but the other a much more abstract pair, with as much gold leaf as paint and clearly partly a study in gold leaf techniques at the period when gold leaf was becoming freely available to the artist.
A series of pen and ink portraits of Mariana was done in Los Angeles in 1978. As described elsewhere, the artist felt a great urge to work, and pen, ink and good paper were obtainable and were practical for use in a friend's house where oil and acrylic would not be. At that time he did not do any self-portraits, but the mention of pen and ink works would be incomplete without reference to another Mariana self-portrait pair. They were relatively early works of the late 1950s, given to his cousin, and are technically superb examples that bring out the full character of the two subjects. They are probably Petrescu's best examples of pen and ink portraits.
As mentioned, the artist rarely did portraits of people other than his wife and himself. Two exceptions are worth mentioning. The first was an early oil of one of his aunts, who is wearing a hat, done 1958 (UTT 2013/110). It is obviously painted with care and devotion and, perhaps understandably, it one of the most realistic portraits. To one who knew only the post-1950s Petrescu it would probably not be recognizable as a Petrescu, having none of the special elements of his mature style.
A trio of portraits was done around 1980 of a friend who wanted a portrait for his father. They were not done from sittings but the friend was well known and the artist had many photographs to refresh his memory. The first of the three was relatively realistic representation on canvas, with elements of his byzantine style in the background. Finding this too photographic and lacking the essence of the subject, Petrescu next did a much looser work, using oil and acrylic on heavy paper, which became a sketch for the final version.
The latter is a fully finished work on heavy paper board. It is a highly stylized representation, recognizable as the subject, but only just so. If one were to make a parallel, it is a Francis Bacon portrait, not a Rembrandt. Moreover, in colours, technique and feeling it is completely a "Petrescu".
While Petrescu has done many portraits of Mariana and a few of other people, it is self-portraits that form the main body of the artist's work in this field. Moreover, they span his whole career and mirror the development of his style and technique, while at the same time using a common, central concept of presentation.
A useful example to begin with is the above-mentioned pen and ink drawing owned by his cousin, now a doctor in New Haven, Connecticut, and owner of one of the largest and most varied collection of the highest quality Petrescus. The quality of the draughtmanship is extremely high and it catches the artist as a man in his early thirties with unerring skill. It is a completely realistic presentation and must have been one of the last self-portraits done in other than the mature Petrescu style.
The portraits after that are almost if not all, paintings. Most of them show the artist's head only. The head is always recognizable as the man, the works being all at the realistic end of the artist's spectrum. The straight, sharply pointed nose, the characteristic eyes of two separate colours and the inimical shape of the head are always present. In contrast to this reality, the background of the paintings and the surface patterns and materials reflect the techniques that interested the artist at the time of the work. In the late 1970s, for example, these self-portraits often were studies in gold leaf application. Collage is the only element of his style that is infrequent in the earlier self-portraits. In contrast, from the mid-1980s onward, the self-portraits all include varying degrees of collage, in a few a very large amount. The works take the same view of the artist as do the portraits of-others; the deameanour is serious and there is no attempt at beautification. To Petrescu, the painting of portraits is a serious professional occupation, not something designed to please the sitter. All of his portraits reflect this.