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58.16Portrait of a Man, Watercolor on paper, 1927

Portraits have long served as a method for humans to convey the likeness of another person or, in the case of the self-portrait, one’s self. Indeed, testaments of portraiture as an artistic genre have been discovered in the distant past, and the practice dated to as early as predynastic Egypt. Not only do portraits describe the physical features of the individual represented, but more importantly to history’s ruling elite, their heightened power and status. In Portrait of a Man, artist Ben Silbert depicts a young man in full profile – a view that was widely popular with the earliest civilizations in the west. Considering the style of clothing, the book in the figure’s right hand, and the academic stance, this work can be said to represent the elevated level of education received by university students of the age.  

Born in Gorki, Russia, Silbert later relocated to New York City and established a name for himself as a portrait painter and etcher. Like Silbert, American artists of the 1900s – 1930s generally rejected the modern art styles evolving in France in favor of more representational imagery. In the early 20th century, American portraiture came to be characterized by truthful depictions rather than embellished perceptions. Portrait artists of the day began including the bourgeoisie and their immediate circle of artists, as well as their nameless models. This was a direct result of the enormous industrial, economic, social, and cultural change that occurred in the United States during the late 19th century, which inspired artists to tell a new story about the real people that average Americans could relate to.