Interesting Artworks: The Visitation by Ali Cavanaugh

The works of Ali Cavanaugh, an American painter internationally renowned for her depictions of the human form, are characterised by an innovative technique referred to by the artist as ‘modern fresco’.  Cavanaugh layers watercolours over a surface of wet kaolin clay, a process which allows her to create a powerful sense of depth by juxtaposing luminous whites with darker regions of black and grey. But much of Cavanaugh’s work is less about technique than it is about the philosophy of portraiture. 

The Visitation (2017) depicts two young women, both of whom appear to be lying on their backs. One faces the viewer with eyes closed; the other turns right with her lips slightly parted, as if on the verge of speech. Cavanaugh’s choice of traditional head-and-shoulder composition, combined with the strongly physical presence of her two subjects, intuitively suggests that The Visitation is a portrait. But what, exactly, is a portrait? Cavanaugh’s work problematises such easy definitions.

Ali Cavanaugh,   The Visitation (2017)

Ali Cavanaugh, The Visitation (2017)

In her book Portraits and People (2010), Cynthia Freeland argues that, for a painting to be considered a portrait, it has to meet four necessary conditions: (1) likeness, (2) psychological characterisation, (3) proof of presence or ‘contact’, (4) manifestation of a person’s ‘essence’ or ‘air’[1]. Although The Visitation fulfills most of these requirements, the third one eludes it. According to Freeland, ‘proof of presence or contact’ means simply that ‘The portrait subject must actually “look back” at the artist, allowing itself to be viewed.’  Cavanaugh’s two women do not appear to be consciously presenting themselves to the artist or viewer; in fact, nothing in this image suggests that the depicted subjects are aware of a voyeuristic presence. But if The Visitation resists the label of ‘portrait’, what should we call it instead?

Perhaps the answer lies with ‘double portraiture’, an aesthetic phenomenon currently being investigated by philosophers Eleen Deprez and Michael Newall. Any notion of ‘proof of presence’ is irrelevant to a double portrait: what matters instead is the internal relationship between the individuals depicted. If, when viewing The Visitation, we consider each of the girls separately, very little is revealed about their characters – or, indeed, about the character of the painting itself. By observing them in relation to one another, however, we come much closer to understanding the dynamic of the artwork as a whole. A sense of warmth and affinity is immediately communicated through the proximity of their bodies, the delicate touching of their hands, and the subtly orchestrated merging of their shadows. We sense a whisper - perhaps a secret about to be shared - and are subsequently led to think of their relationship in terms of friendship or sisterhood. As Cavanaugh herself insists, ‘I paint family and friends. People that are in my circle. These girls are sisters. I have known them for many years. They are “sisterly affection and connection” perfected.’

It is difficult to capture the ethereal in a static image, but in The Visitation Cavanaugh manages to portray unspoken affection in an effortless manner. In her essay The Emotions in Art (2008), Jenefer Robinson explains how bodily gestures and facial expressions can lend a sense of movement to two-dimensional images. The bodily gestures depicted in Cavanaugh’s double portrait not only achieve a convincing impression of dynamism, but also serve to remind the viewer of the emotional values (values based on affection, trust, and kinship) that modern society so desperately lacks. Cavanaugh’s sisters inhabit a peaceful, cyan-hued world of their own, whispering to one another in quiet sisterly affection. As such, they represent an alternative, more intimate approach to portraiture; one that emphasises the relationships that play out between human beings, rather than between subjects and spectators.



[1] Cynthia Freeland, Portraits and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press). 

Stefani Georgieva