Friday Night Dialogues: ‘Portraits of a Lady’

A 2006 portrait of Sandra Day O'Connor by Jean Marcellino, a member of of The Painting Group and one of 25 artists who painted Ms. O'Connor during a six-hour sitting. (Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Jean Marcellino)

A portrait of Sandra Day O’Connor made by Jean Marcellino, a member of of The Painting Group and one of 25 artists who painted Ms. O’Connor during a six-hour sitting in 2006. (Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Jean Marcellino.)

Imagine being in the same room with former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner as each of 25 artists creates, in just six hours, a portrait of one of the most famous women on the planet. Well, you will have that chance on March 16 at 7 p.m. when Friday Night Dialogues at the Shelter Island Library presents the documentary “Portraits of a Lady.” The screening is being presented in partnership with the Hamptons Take Two Documentary Film Festival and will be followed by a discussion with Walter Bernard, co-producer of the film.

The artists were all members of The Painting Group, created 50 years ago by caricaturist David Levine and artist Aaron Shikler. They gathered together some two dozen amateur and professional painters who wanted to meet once a week to create portraits. The Painting Group hired male and female models to sit for them and each model sat for one three-hour session per week for a total of four weeks.

Walter Bernard joined The Painting Group because he wanted to make a documentary film about this unique bunch of painters. But, as he told me, “I couldn’t get backing.”

Then he remembered reading that of the many, many different portraits painted of George Washington, it’s the Gilbert Stuart portrait that is most often shown, because, as others have noted, we want to believe that’s George Washington.

Bernard continued, “That got me thinking that we, The Painting Group, should find a national figure to sit for us.”

Through a series of mutual connections and some always welcome serendipity it came to pass that on October 10, 2006 former Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, sat for a six-hour session of The Painting Group.

DAVID HUME KENNERLY PHOTO | The six-hour painting session in New York City on October 10, 2006 with former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner

DAVID HUME KENNERLY PHOTO | The six-hour painting session in New York City on October 10, 2006 with former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner

The documentary records each artist as he or she struggles to achieve a one-day “premier coup” (first impression) of this world renowned woman. The documentary also reveals the wit and charm of O’Connor as she tells stories and interacts with the artists. The camera is rolling as each artist puts down his or her very first brush stroke, and it is still recording as each one adds the last dot.  The 25 portraits are finished, each one unique to each artist’s vision.

Reflecting on that memorable day, Bernard says he realized, “It takes three people to make a portrait: the person sitting for the portrait, the artist creating the portrait, and the person looking at the portrait.”

“Portraits of a Lady” concludes on that very note at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. for the March 2007 exhibition of all the portraits of Sandra Day O’Connor created by The Painting Group. Join us at the library to learn more about this fascinating project.

Up Next: On Friday, April 5 at 7 p.m., John DiLeo will discuss his new book, “Ten Movies at a Time.”

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