Masterpieces & Curiosities: The Fictional Portrait

The latest iteration of the essay-style exhibition series studies two companion portraits in the Jewish Museum’s collection, revealing a tale far different from what has been assumed for almost a century.

If every picture tells a story then, at a glance, a portrait tells a simple one — the faithful biography of a sitter as conveyed by a named artist. This often misleading assumption lies at the heart of Masterpieces & Curiosities: The Fictional Portrait, which illuminates the complex relationship between portraiture and truth.

Stephen Brown, Associate Curator, examines two paintings in the Museum’s permanent collection: Acquired in 1957, the “Mears” portraits were credited to an 18th-century American artist and thought to represent a prominent Jewish merchant of colonial New York and his wife. After a decade of research, the identities of the artist and sitters have been reconsidered through archival investigation, genealogical studies, and X-ray analysis.

“The idea of portraiture is based on the belief in some direct relation between the image and the sitter,” asserts Brown. “But every image is a representation, and all representation is fiction.”

By separating fact from fiction and unveiling the truth behind these enigmatic portraits, Masterpieces & Curiosities: The Fictional Portrait lays to rest a mystery centuries-old while challenging our notions concerning the genre of portraiture.