When the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery reopens July 1 after more than five years of renovations, its collection will include a painting by South Portland artist Brett Bigbee.
His painting “Joe and James” is one of seven finalists in the gallery’s triennial portrait competition, which carries a $25,000 prize and a commission for a portrait of a famous living American.
Bigbee has lived in Maine for 20 years, and his residency is clear in this work. Set with the backdrop of a local beach, “Joe and James” is an oil-on-linen rendition of his two young sons. The painting has been in the Farnsworth Art Museum’s collection in Rockland for a couple years, and its move to Washington, D.C., hasn’t really fazed its subjects yet. Bigbee says his sons are “kind of curious” about the picture of themselves in the Smithsonian, but are still at an age where the outside world doesn’t really concern them.
Bigbee worked on the portrait over a two-and-a-half-year period, using a combination of drawings, videos, and photos of his children as guides. He says his sons’ strong personalities and the fact that he could “look at them all the time” helped contribute to the picture.
“I realized that little boys have no awareness of what their bodies are doing,” Bigbee said of painting his sons. He is currently working on a portrait of a young girl, and he’s noticed that females master stage presence much earlier in life.
Bigbee says he hasn’t given much thought yet to whom he might paint if he wins the grand-prize commission. When pressed for contemporary figures he would consider, actor Johnny Depp, former president Bill Clinton, and Maine Senator Olympia Snowe all made the list. A diverse group, but all people Bigbee believes have “strong character.”
While this marks his first showing at the Smithsonian, Bigbee has displayed his contemporary realist-style portraits at several Maine galleries in the past. In 2001 he exhibited paintings spanning over 15 years of his career at the Farnsworth in Rockland. In the ‘90s he showed at the Portland Museum of Art, which still has one of his drawings in its collection.
“I can’t have commercial shows,” explains Bigbee, because he doesn’t have many finished paintings, a result of taking as long as five years to make a single painting. He would like to have enough work to allow for gallery representation in New England in addition to the one he already has in New York. But Bigbee says contentedly, “I paint how I paint.”
Brent Bigbee’s painting “Joe and James,” his entry in the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition 2006 at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., will be on display from July 1 to February 19, 2007.